Getting life insurance requires more than simply shopping for quotes, selecting a plan and buying the policy. There is a process to buying life insurance, and part of that process is life insurance underwriting. The underwriting process determines your rate by analyzing your health, hobbies, occupation and lifestyle. Bankrate is here to help you understand what life insurance underwriting is and how it affects your buying journey.

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What is life insurance underwriting?

Life insurance underwriting is a process where insurance carriers assign applicants a classification based on several factors. Underwriters consider several rate factors — such as your age, gender and medical history — to evaluate risk. For example, if you are a smoker, you will likely face higher premiums than someone who has never smoked. Your policy is priced according to your rating factors and assessed risk level.

What is a life insurance underwriter?

Simply put, an underwriter is the person or company who looks at all the data collected about you and determines if your overall risk level would be suitable for the company to insure. The underwriter will give you an insurance classification and, based on that classification and other data, your eligibility for coverage and rate will be set. Generally, the better your classification, the less you will pay for your premium.

Like all insurance rates, life insurance rates are based on risk. Underwriters examine the information you’ve listed on your application to determine how likely it is that you will pass away during the policy period, which means that the insurance company would have to pay your death benefit.

The underwriter looks at everything from your age and weight to whether your hobbies are risky — skydiving, for example — and then assesses the likelihood of your death. To make their assessment, they’ll use something called an underwriting manual, which is specific to that company. This manual lists the guidelines that the company uses to determine who they will and won’t write policies for.

How long is the insurance underwriting process?

Obtaining life insurance and going through the underwriting process has multiple steps and usually takes two to eight weeks to complete. It may be longer than that if your potential insurer has questions or if they need to wait on a response from your doctor.

The application

The process starts with you filling out an application. This may take some time and thought. It includes basic health information, such as your height and weight, along with information on your habits, such as whether you smoke, how much you drink and whether you exercise regularly. It will also ask about your family history with any diseases — if you have a history of cancer in your family, for example, you’ll list it in the appropriate section.

The application may also include financial information, as well as information about what you do for a living and how you spend your free time. The insurance company is trying to discover if you are engaged in any risky behaviors.

For example, if you work in the logging industry, one of the most dangerous professions in the U.S., a company may either turn down your application or increase the premium. This can also happen if you take part in risky activities, such as paragliding, skydiving or racing cars.

Medical exam and statement

The next step is a medical exam, which comes at no cost to you. Keep in mind that this step would not apply for guaranteed issue life insurance, which does not have health qualifications. You will either go to a lab to complete the exam, or have a nurse or medical technician come to your home or workplace. This will verify the initial information you put on your application, like height and weight, take your vitals (pulse and blood pressure) and will probably include a blood test and urine test to check for drug use.

All of this is to determine the state of your health. If the exam determines that you are overweight, have high blood pressure or any number of other physical ailments or potential health issues, your classification may be bumped down or could cause you to be denied coverage. Following the medical exam, the underwriter may ask you for an attending physician statement from your doctor. Your own doctor is the best person to speak about your health and can expand on the findings from the medical exam.

The final steps in the medical portion of life insurance underwriting include a prescription check, to confirm any information you’ve given about drugs that you take, either short-term or for maintenance purposes. The underwriter will also check with the Medical Information Bureau, which is a non-profit trade group that can verify or dispute medical information gathered to date.

Analyzing the information

Armed with all the information that’s been gathered, your underwriter will now determine your final rating. Their first step will be to consult an actuarial table. This is a document that shows life expectancy — in other words, how likely it is that you will die at a certain age.

The data on the actuarial table may be broken down by age and gender as well as body mass index (BMI) and takes into account your height/weight ratio. Using this resource, the underwriter is able to see what the probability is that you’ll pass away while the policy is active. The higher that probability, the higher your premium will likely be. This is generally why permanent life insurance policies are more expensive than term policies, since they last for the duration of the policyholder’s life, as long as premiums are paid.

Your insurance classification

Finally, your underwriter will take everything into consideration and give you an insurance classification rating. There are five categories you can fall into, listed here from best to worst:

  • Preferred Plus or Preferred Elite: This means you’re in excellent health, have a great height/weight ratio and have minimal or no bad habits that would impact your health.
  • Preferred: This is for people who are in good health, but not good enough to qualify for preferred plus or elite. This could mean you have a minor health issue, such as high blood pressure or high cholesterol.
  • Standard Plus: You will still be able to purchase a policy, but there may be some concerns about your medical record or a family history of disease. Your life insurance costs will likely be higher than if you were in one of the upper categories.
  • Standard: This is the category that most people fall into. Like Standard Plus, you’ll likely still be able to buy a policy with this classification, but you’ll probably have higher premiums.
  • Substandard: Substandard ratings involve a further classification system called “table rating.” Depending on how you score in that system, you will either be assigned to a policy with high rates or denied for coverage. This is to account for a complex medical history or other factors that make you a higher risk to insure. If you find yourself in this category, you may want to seek a no-exam life insurance option.

Generally, these rating classifications exist for both smokers and nonsmokers. A smoker may qualify for a “Preferred Smoker” category, but the rates will typically be higher than they are for the “Preferred Non-Smoker” category.

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