Should life insurance be renewed in retirement?

Dear Liz: My life insurance policy of $500,000 will end in four years, when I’m 63. My wife’s policy ends at age 62. Our kids are 28 and 25 and successfully launched with careers. I also have a $180,000 life insurance policy through my job that expires when I plan to retire, also at age 63. My wife and I have long-term-care insurance policies. We have $170,000 in an active investment account plus $1.4 million in our 401(k)s. Our kids also have trust funds that they will get when they turn 30 of about $80,000 each. Should I buy more life insurance for 10 to 15 years? Our estate, which is in a living trust, will pass to the kids. Our house is worth about $1 million.

Answer: The first question you must ask when it comes to life insurance is whether you need it. If you have people who are financially dependent on you, you typically do. If your wife has sufficient retirement income should you die, and vice versa, then you probably don’t.

So-called permanent or cash-value life insurance is often sold as a way to pay estate taxes, but again, it doesn’t look as if you’ll need that coverage. Congress increased the estate tax exemption limit for 2012 to $5.12 million, and that amount is tied to inflation going forward.

Still, this is a good question to pose to a fee-only financial planner, and you should be seeing one for a consultation before you retire in any case. Retirement involves too many complicated, irreversible decisions to proceed without help.

“Cheap” insurance could cost more in the long run

Dear Liz: My homeowners insurance just went up 25%. I’ve made no claims and made no changes. I want to get quotes from other providers, but I’m afraid I’m going to get some type of “teaser” rate. I tried changing companies a few years ago and the rate was good, but when it came time for the renewal, they doubled the price! Again, I made no changes nor had any claims. So, now I want to change, but I’m afraid of falling into the same trap. Any suggestions?

Answer: You can’t assume you’re locking in a low rate for life when you buy homeowners insurance. Companies that want to expand their market share may lower their prices awhile to lure customers away from their competitors, then raise premiums when their claims costs go up or they simply want to cut their risk.

The company’s reputation for customer service should be at least as important a factor as price in your decision-making. Check the complaint surveys that many state insurance departments maintain on their websites to see which companies have the best (and worst) reputations.

One way to reduce your homeowner premium is to increase your deductible. Raising the amount you pay out of pocket from $250 to $1,000 can lower your premiums 25%. You should be paying small damages out of pocket anyway, since filing small claims can cause your rates to rise.

You also should shop around every few years, even if a company doesn’t dramatically raise your rates, to make sure you’re getting a decent deal. But again, chasing the lowest-cost insurance could be only a short-term win — an insurer that charges slightly more could be the more stable, and consumer-friendly, choice.

Advice not to fund 401(k) is a red flag

Dear Liz: You recently suggested an insurance salesman be reported to state regulators because he suggested a reader stop funding a 401(k) and instead fund an insurance contract with after-tax dollars. You were way out of line. It’s very likely tax rates will be going up, so it may make sense to trade a tax benefit now for a better one in the future.

Answer: You might have a valid point if the reader were wealthy enough to be funding a life insurance policy or annuity in addition to his 401(k) contributions. Wealthier people are already facing higher tax rates, and they are more likely to be in the same bracket, or perhaps even a higher one, when they retire.

The fact that the insurance salesman suggested the reader redirect his retirement contributions to the insurance contract indicates the reader didn’t have the cash flow to do both. So it’s still quite likely that the reader will drop into a lower tax bracket in retirement, in which case he’s given up a valuable tax break now for a less valuable one in the future.

A red flag should go up anytime an insurance salesperson recommends you stop funding a tax-deductible retirement plan or that you tap home equity to buy whatever he or she is selling. That indicates the product was designed for someone wealthier than you. At the very least, you should run the purchase past a fee-only financial planner — someone who doesn’t earn commissions on product sales — to make sure you’re getting the whole story.

Get second opinion before buying cash-value insurance

Dear Liz: I think you missed one of the possibilities when a reader wrote to you about a pitch he received from an insurance salesman. The salesman wanted the reader to stop funding his 401(k) and instead invest in a contract that would guarantee his principal but cap his returns in any given year. You thought the salesman was pitching an equity indexed annuity, but it’s possible he was promoting an indexed universal life policy, which would offer the same guarantees of principal and offer tax-free loans.

Answer: You may be correct — in which case the product being pitched is just as unlikely to be a good fit for the 61-year-old reader as an equity indexed annuity.

Cash-value life insurance policies typically have high expenses and make sense only when there’s a permanent need for life insurance. If the reader doesn’t have people who are financially dependent on him, he may not need life insurance at all.

Furthermore, the “lapse rate” for cash-value life insurance policies tends to be high, which means many people stop paying the costly premiums long before they accumulate any cash value that can be tapped.

Before you invest in any annuity or life insurance product, get an independent second opinion. One way is to run the product past a fee-only financial planner, who should be able to analyze the product and advise you of options that may be a better fit for your situation. If you just want a detailed analysis of the policy itself, you can pay $100 to EvaluateLifeInsurance.org, which is run by former state insurance commissioner James Hunt.

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Get a second opinion before buying annuity

Dear Liz: Our advisor recommended that we convert our rollover IRA to an annuity. We are having difficulty researching this. Any suggestions?

Answer: Unless your advisor is a complete numskull, he probably didn’t mean you should cash out your IRA to invest in an annuity. That would incur a big, unnecessary tax bill.

The idea he’s trying to promote is to sell the investments within your IRA, which wouldn’t trigger taxes, and invest the proceeds in an annuity.

The devil is in the details — specifically, what type of annuity he’s suggesting. If he wants you to buy a variable deferred annuity, you should probably find another advisor or at least get a second opinion. The primary benefit of a variable annuity is tax deferral, which you’ve already got with your IRA. The insurance companies that provide variable annuities, which are basically mutual fund-type investments inside an insurance wrapper, tout other benefits, including locking in a certain payout. Those benefits come at the cost of higher expenses, which is why you want a neutral party — someone who doesn’t earn a commission on the sale — to review it.

If he’s suggesting you buy a fixed annuity, which typically provides you a payout for life, you still should get that second opinion. A fixed annuity creates a kind of pension for you, with checks that last as long as you do. There are downsides to consider, though. Typically, once you invest the money, you can’t get it back. Also, today’s low interest rates mean you’re not going to get as much money in those monthly checks as you would if rates were higher. Some financial planners suggest their clients put off investing in fixed annuities until that happens, or at least spread out their purchases over time in hopes of locking in more favorable rates.

You can hire a fee-only financial planner who works by the hour to review your options. You can get referrals to such planners from Garrett Planning Network, http://www.garrettplanningnetwork.com.

Term or whole life? What you need to know

Dear Liz: My mother and her insurance agent swear by whole-life insurance policies. I am 45 and have heard from everyone else to only have term life, which is what my husband and I both have. We have a 15-year-old daughter. Can you please put in layman’s terms what a whole-life policy is and what the benefits are?

Answer: Term insurance provides a death benefit if you die during the “term” of the policy. Term insurance provides coverage for a limited time, such as 10, 20 or 30 years. It has no cash value otherwise and you can’t borrow money against it.

Whole-life policies combine a death benefit with an investment component. The investment component is designed to accumulate value over time that the insured person can withdraw or borrow against. Whole-life policies are often called a type of “permanent” life insurance, since they’re designed to cover you for life rather than just a designated period.

If you need life insurance — and with a daughter who is still a minor, you certainly do — the most important thing is to make sure you buy a big enough policy to cover the financial needs of your dependents. This is where whole-life policies can be problematic, since the same amount of coverage can cost up to 10 times what a term policy would cost. Many people find they can’t afford sufficient coverage if they buy permanent insurance. Also, many people don’t have a need for lifetime insurance coverage. Once your kids are grown and the mortgage is paid off, your survivors may not need the coverage a permanent policy would provide.

If you are interested in a whole-life policy, make sure to run it by a fee-only financial planner who can objectively evaluate the coverage to make sure it’s a good fit for your circumstances.

Insurance scores aren’t the same as credit scores

Dear Liz: I have very high credit scores, but recently got a notice from my homeowners insurance company saying that my rates were rising because there had been a number of inquiries on my credit report. The inquiries were as a result of my looking for the best deal on a mortgage refinance, and we applied for a retail card to save the 5% on our purchases. Do many insurers use FICO scores as a rate determiner?

Answer: Insurance companies don’t use FICO scores to set rates, but they do use somewhat similar formulas that incorporate credit report information in a process called “insurance scoring” to set premiums. Insurers, and some independent researchers, have found a strong correlation between negative credit and a person’s likelihood of filing claims. (California and Massachusetts are among the few states that prohibit the practice.)

The formulas insurers use sometimes punish behavior that has only a minor effect on your FICO scores. Since insurers use different insurance scoring formulas, however, you may well find a better deal by shopping around.

Don’t buy life insurance if you don’t need life insurance

Dear Liz: I recently inherited around $200,000. I’m on track for retirement, so my broker is encouraging me to consider buying a policy for long-term care. He recommends a flexible-premium universal life insurance policy that requires a one-time upfront payment and provides a death benefit as well as a long-term care benefit. It does appear to me to be a better option than buying a long-term care policy in which I pay a certain amount every month, which can of course increase greatly as time goes on, with no guarantee of ever needing or using the benefits and no hope of money paid in becoming part of my estate.

Answer: Long-term care policies can indeed be problematic, since the premiums can soar just when you’re most likely to need the coverage. So if you need life insurance for another purpose — to take care of financial dependents should you die or to pay taxes on your estate — then a life insurance policy with a long-term care rider may not be a bad idea, said Laura Tarbox, a fee-only Certified Financial Planner in Newport Beach who specializes in insurance.

But buying life insurance when you don’t need it just to get another benefit, such as long-term care coverage or tax-free income, is often a costly mistake.

“The golden rule is that you do not buy life insurance if you don’t need life insurance,” Tarbox said. “It would probably be better to invest the money and have it earmarked for long-term care.”

If you decide you want to buy this insurance, don’t grab the first policy you’re offered. Shop around, because premiums and benefits vary enormously. The financial strength of the insurer matters as well. You want the company to still be there, perhaps decades in the future, if you should need the coverage.

What you don’t want to do is take guidance solely from someone who is going to make a fat commission should you buy what he or she recommends.

“Get two or three proposals from different agents,” Tarbox said. “A fee-only financial planner can help you sort through them.”