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Life insurance for high-risk applicants

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When you apply for a life insurance policy, the insurance company looks at factors like your age, gender, medical history and lifestyle to determine your eligibility and calculate your premium. Individuals with no major health issues usually have no trouble getting a policy. However, some people have risk factors that make them more of a risk for the insurance companies. These people, referred to as high-risk applicants, still have life insurance options, but it might be helpful to understand what those options are.

What makes you a high-risk life insurance applicant?

A high-risk life insurance applicant is someone who has health or lifestyle risks that makes them riskier for life insurance companies to insure. Each life insurance company defines high-risk life insurance applicants differently. However, typically, life insurance companies may consider you to be a high-risk applicant if you have a dangerous occupation, engage in risky hobbies like skydiving, smoke, have below-average health and/or have underlying health conditions.

Unlike home and auto insurance, life insurance quotes are based on the applicant’s life expectancy. The higher your risk of premature death, the higher your premium will be, on average. If you’re considered a high-risk applicant, some life insurance companies will limit the policies available to you. Some companies may only offer you a guaranteed issue policy, a high-cost no-exam life insurance policy. Other companies may still allow you to purchase term life insurance, but your rates will likely be high.

So, how do you find out whether you’re a high-risk applicant? To determine your underwriting risks, life insurance companies typically require you to complete a medical exam that measures key health markers such as height, weight, blood pressure, nicotine usage, alcohol consumption, prescriptions, family medical history and current medical conditions. If you are considered to be high-risk, the insurance company could deny you coverage. Even if you’re able to get a policy, you may have to pay higher premiums or experience a waiting period before you can be fully covered. The two biggest factors that determine your eligibility for life insurance are your medical risks and your lifestyle.

Medical risk

Life insurance companies want to know about your personal medical history, as well as your family history of illness that could make you a high-risk applicant. If you have any of the following conditions, you are likely considered high-risk:

  • Cancer: Having been diagnosed with cancer of any type will likely put you in the high-risk category for life insurance. To purchase a policy, most insurance companies will require you to be cancer-free for a certain number of years.
  • Heart attack: If you have had a heart attack in the past or have been diagnosed with heart disease, it will impact your ability to get life insurance. People who have had one heart attack often have another, which poses additional risk for the insurance company.
  • Stroke: Strokes can affect your ability to get life insurance. Most life insurance companies will not approve a traditional policy if you have had a stroke within the last year, or you had a stroke that led to other health issues, like paralysis.
  • Dementia: Because there is no cure for cognitive disorders, people with dementia have to purchase high-risk life insurance. On average, a person with Alzheimer’s lives four to eight years after diagnosis, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.
  • HIV/AIDS: People who have been diagnosed with HIV or AIDS are considered high-risk, even if their disorder is well-managed. Some studies show that people living with HIV/AIDS have a shorter life expectancy than the average person.

Other health conditions may not immediately make you a high-risk applicant. For instance, life insurance for diabetics can be pretty cheap, especially for policyholders with well-managed Type 2 Diabetes.


The other major factor that determines your life insurance risk is your lifestyle. Even if you have no medical issues or family history of illness, you could still be considered high-risk based on things like your occupation, your habits and the types of hobbies you enjoy:

  • Occupation: Life insurance companies consider your occupation to determine the amount of risk you face on a daily basis. Some examples of high-risk jobs are underground miners, steelworkers, construction workers and commercial fishers. The deadliest career field in 2019 was fishing and hunting, with 145 deaths per 100,000 workers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
  • Hobbies: If you consider yourself to be a thrillseeker, you are most likely in the high-risk category. Insurance companies want to know if you participate in potentially dangerous hobbies like scuba diving, mountaineering, skydiving and motorcycle racing.
  • Nicotine use: Smoking has a number of health risks, and it can lead to other medical issues like certain types of cancer and COPD. If you smoke cigarettes, vape or use chewing tobacco, life insurance companies will likely consider you to be high-risk. If you’re a previous smoker who has quit, you may not be considered high-risk, but may still have to pay high premiums. Importantly, life insurance for smokers is typically available, but you should be prepared to likely pay more.
  • Alcohol consumption: If you drink more alcohol than the recommended serving amount, life insurance companies will likely consider you to be high-risk. Overconsumption of alcohol can trigger other health complications and increase the risk of accidents.

How do high-risk life insurance rates work?

To calculate rates, most of the largest life insurance companies place applicants into one of the following rating categories, based on their level of risk. Note that not every company uses the same classes during the underwriting process. However, it is common for life insurance companies to place applicants in one of the following underwriting classes:

  • Preferred select or preferred plus: The healthiest applicants who have a clean bill of health and no family history of genetic illnesses, no high-risk occupation or hobbies, and no bad habits like smoking will likely fit into this rating group.
  • Preferred: Preferred applicants are typically healthy individuals who may have one or two marks against them. For instance, they may have a small medical issue or a slightly risky hobby.
  • Standard: If you have a few medical issues or a risky lifestyle, you may fit into the standard category, and will likely pay higher rates than those in the preferred plus and preferred groups.
  • Substandard: Applicants who are considered high-risk to the insurance company likely fit into this category. These applicants may have a dangerous job, a risky hobby or medical issues.
  • Preferred tobacco: Applicants who have quit smoking or are otherwise healthy may fit into the preferred tobacco rating group, and will likely pay lower rates than those in the standard tobacco group.
  • Standard tobacco: Most smokers likely fit into the standard tobacco group. Since smoking can cause cancer and other health issues, those in the standard tobacco group will likely pay steep premiums.

How to find high-risk insurance

Since life insurance companies differ in how they classify risk, you may want to research your options and get quotes from a few different providers to find the most affordable company for you. Some companies care most about your health in the past few years, whereas others care about your lifelong medical history. Some companies may care more about a dangerous occupation, while others may care more about smoking.

You may want to start your insurance search by identifying the life insurance companies in your area that specialize in high-risk life insurance. If you’re a high-risk applicant and you’re having trouble finding a life insurance company that will accept you, it may be helpful to talk with an independent life insurance agent. They may be able to point you towards the companies that cater to high-risk policyholders in your specific situation. For instance, there may be a company nearby that offers great coverage to smokers. An independent insurance agent may also be able to walk you through policy options outside of whole and term policies, such as guaranteed issue life insurance.

Frequently asked questions

What is the best life insurance company?

The best life insurance company is different for everyone. It depends on factors like your age, overall health, the type of policy you want and the amount of coverage you need. You can find the best life insurance company for you by shopping around and comparing providers using your personal criteria.

How much life insurance do I need?

The amount of life insurance you need should be based on your income and your family’s financial needs. You can use a life insurance coverage calculator to help figure out how much coverage is best for your situation.

Can you save money on high-risk life insurance?

If you fall into the high-risk category, it is still possible to save money on your life insurance policy. Because the cost of life insurance is based largely upon your medical history, improving your overall health is a great place to start. For example, if you are considered high-risk because you smoke and are overweight, you may want to work with your doctor to lose weight and quit smoking. If you are taking medication to manage HIV/AIDS or another health condition, keep taking your prescriptions to avoid other complications. If you are an avid scuba diver, consider finding a less risky hobby you enjoy.

Written by
Lizzie Nealon
Insurance Contributor
Lizzie Nealon is an insurance contributor for Bankrate and enjoys making home, auto and life insurance digestible for readers so they can prepare for the future.
Edited by
Insurance Editor
Reviewed by
Assistant Vice President & Claims Field Manager