Understanding Life Insurance Illustrations

How to make sense of it all.

CPAs who are new to insurance may find they are sometimes confused by policy illustrations. In truth it’s not easy to digest the complex information they present without some training. Insurance illustrations are what the industry gives clients to help them understand a policy. They are simply hypothetical representations that reflect the critical assumptions the company used to compute policy results. Insurance illustrations often contain 20 pages of densely packed numbers and legal disclaimers. Here are some tips for CPAs on how to read them and what to look for.

Insurance policies have four moving parts: Inflows from premiums and interest credits both increase cash value; mortality charges and expenses both decrease it. An illustration typically has two key components:

The guaranteed illustration. This is the legally required disclosure of a worst-case scenario. It outlines policy performance based on the carrier’s minimum filed credit rates for a particular policy and the maximum mortality charges based on the 1980 commissioner’s standard mortality table.

The current illustration. This is the insurer’s representations of policy performance based on credit rates and mortality charges currently in effect.

The exhibit at the end of this article shows the guaranteed and nonguaranteed values and other policy information for a female nonsmoker age 65 purchasing $1 million of universal life insurance.

When a client asks them to look at an insurance illustration, CPAs should look first at the basic assumptions the company used to compute it, including the age, sex and underwriting health status of the prospective insured. An illustration involves three variables: the premium, cash surrender value and death benefits. The insurer’s software will compute one variable based on selected assumptions for the other two. Illustrations must contain at least the guaranteed and current/nonguaranteed rates. The former reflect the minimum interest filed for this policy type and the maximum mortality charges permitted by law.

When a client purchases a policy, the results indicated in the nonguaranteed columns are guaranteed for the first year only. When looking at an illustration, CPAs should understand the only true guarantee is that the policy’s actual financial results will be different from those shown in either the guaranteed or nonguaranteed columns.

CPAs should test the assumptions in an illustration using the so-called 80% test. Here’s how. Use a program that calculates the future value of a stream of payments to compute the compound payment value if the client pays the policy premiums into an investment fund yielding 5% from now until the end of the life expectancy used in the illustration. This value should be at least 80% of the illustration’s death benefit. If not, it means the illustration uses a rate of return or other assumptions that may be unreasonable.

Using the premium information from the sample illustration in the exhibit, the future value of annual payments of $19,110 for 30 years at 5% is nearly $1,270,000. This amount clearly passes the 80% test, based on the $1 million death benefit that the illustration shows.

When evaluating an illustration, accountants also should get a Vital Signs report ( www.lifelinkpro.com ) on the insurance carrier. This service provides summaries of all insurance companies filing with the North American Association of Insurance Commissioners. It includes the ratings of all companies by the major rating services plus selected financial information. When advising clients, CPAs should look to see whether results from operations and returns from the company’s investment portfolio are positive. If an insurer is losing money in both areas, this is a warning sign about the illustration’s value in predicting future policy performance.

The guaranteed column in an insurance illustration assumes the worst case—that from policy inception, the carrier will credit the minimum interest and charge the maximum amount based on the standard mortality tables. CPAs studying insurance policy illustrations can assume the benefits, cash surrender value and accumulated values will never be lower than those the insurer guarantees.

Actual policy performance is subject to change at the insurer’s discretion within the limits imposed by contractual provisions. The moment the client buys the policy, the illustration no longer predicts future results with the exception of the worst-case scenario and the first policy year using current assumptions, both of which are guaranteed.

Some carriers provide illustrations that offer an additional “nonguaranteed” column. (The one in the exhibit does not.) This second column reflects changes in the interest credits that are halfway between the guaranteed and nonguaranteed assumptions. Don’t make the mistake of thinking the midpoint is the most likely scenario for interest credits. It’s simply a random point halfway in the interest rate projections. The mortality charges do not change for either illustration.

Both nonguaranteed illustrations—the current and the intermediate—are hypothetical representations of the company’s current practices. They reflect a scenario based on rates the insurer declared to be in effect when it issued the policy. For planning purposes CPAs should assume this annual declared rate is in effect through the end of the policy period.

It’s always a good idea for CPAs to ask the insurer to provide an inforce reprojection showing any changes in credits or charges the company has declared for the next policy year (an insurer won’t issue one unless asked). Review it with the client. Look closely for any unanticipated premium increases. Changes in credits and charges to the policy will be reflected in revised premiums or benefits. The example in the exhibit shows the carrier maintaining a regular annual premium of $19,110 for the 35 years the policy runs. Any change in the projected annual premium or the benefits would result from alterations the insurer made prospectively to the policy’s performance assumptions.
CPAs should look closely at illustrations that show “vanishing” premiums. This happens when policy cash value and earnings are projected to cover the premiums. The common presumption is that such policies are “paid up.” This is not necessarily so. With the real-world rise and fall of interest rates and expenses, premiums that had vanished may, in future years, suddenly reappear. If this happens, clients who haven’t anticipated premiums reappearing are in for a rude surprise. CPAs should recommend clients budget for these premiums annually. If the premium doesn’t reappear in a given year, the client can spend his or her “windfall” elsewhere.

Beware of any illustration an agent provides that is missing pages in the narrative summary. Just as an audit report is incomplete without all the notes to the financial statements, so is an illustration without the narrative summary. It must include several parts.

Policy description, terms and features. These give an overview of the main elements. Make sure the policy’s premium stream and benefits projections match the client’s needs.

Underwriting discussion. This contains the policy’s benefits, premiums and tax information.

Column definitions and key terms. They define what the carrier intends the terms used in the illustration to mean. Make sure the definitions match your own understanding.

Disclaimer. It advises readers the illustration is not an estimate of future values and actual results could be more or less favorable.

Signature page. This shows a numeric summary of the illustration in 5- and 10-year increments. The applicant signs a statement that he or she understands the nonguaranteed elements are subject to change. The insurance agent (also called the producer) signs, saying he or she has explained the nonguaranteed elements are subject to change.

Click here for a sample summary for a typical policy.

CPAs will increasingly be called on to have a working understanding of insurance illustrations and what they mean. Clients will ask more and more detailed questions they once would have expected insurance agents to answer. Responsibility for informed judgment increasingly will go to a trusted adviser—the CPA. Continuing education programs will help CPAs get a more detailed understanding of insurance illustrations and their limitations.

NEIL ALEXANDER, CFP, is founder and president of Alexander Capital Consulting, LLC, in Los Angeles. His e-mail address is nalex@alexcap.com .

Sample Life Insurance Illustration
$1,000,000 of Universal Life Insurance—Hypothetical

Age: 65
Preferred nonsmoker

  Guaranteed* Nonguaranteed**
Year Age Premium Accumulation
1 65 $19,110   $13,314 $0 $1,000,000 $13,587 $0 $1,000,000
2 66 $19,110   $27,002 $0 $1,000,000 $27,781 $0 $1,000,000
3 67 $19,110   $40,689 $689 $1,000,000 $42,248 $2,248 $1,000,000
4 68 $19,110   $54,391 $20,092 $1,000,000 $57,014 $22,715 $1,000,000
5 69 $19,110   $68,125 $39,525 $1,000,000 $72,114 $43,514 $1,000,000
6 70 $19,110   $67,386 $44,587 $1,000,000 $91,288 $68,489 $1,000,000
7 71 $19,110   $64,155 $47,055 $1,000,000 $110,595 $93,495 $1,000,000
8 72 $19,110   $58,175 $46,776 $1,000,000 $130,378 $118,979 $1,000,000
9 73 $19,110   $48,664 $42,965 $1,000,000 $150,596 $144,897 $1,000,000
10 74 $19,110   $34,752 $34,752 $1,000,000 $171,205 $171,205 $1,000,000
11 75 $19,110   $4,557 $4,557 $1,000,000 $192,400 $192,400 $1,000,000
12 76 $19,110   $0 $0 $0 $214,165 $214,165 $1,000,000
13 77 $19,110   $0 $0 $0 $236,466 $236,466 $1,000,000
14 78 $19,110   $0 $0 $0 $258,801 $258,801 $1,000,000
15 79 $19,110   $0 $0 $0 $281,524 $281,524 $1,000,000
16 80 $19,110   $0 $0 $0 $304,960 $304,960 $1,000,000
17 81 $19,110   $0 $0 $0 $329,174 $329,174 $1,000,000
18 82 $19,110   $0 $0 $0 $353,843 $353,843 $1,000,000
19 83 $19,110   $0 $0 $0 $378,996 $378,996 $1,000,000
20 84 $19,110   $0 $0 $0 $404,678 $404,678 $1,000,000
21 85 $19,110   $0 $0 $0 $430,957 $430,957 $1,000,000
22 86 $19,110   $0 $0 $0 $457,931 $457,931 $1,000,000
23 87 $19,110   $0 $0 $0 $485,727 $485,727 $1,000,000
24 88 $19,110   $0 $0 $0 $514,492 $514,492 $1,000,000
25 89 $19,110   $0 $0 $0 $544,427 $544,427 $1,000,000
26 90 $19,110   $0 $0 $0 $575,772 $575,772 $1,000,000
27 91 $19,110   $0 $0 $0 $608,828 $608,828 $1,000,000
28 92 $19,110   $0 $0 $0 $643,960 $643,960 $1,000,000
29 93 $19,110   $0 $0 $0 $681,618 $681,618 $1,000,000
30 94 $19,110   $0 $0 $0 $722,353 $722,353 $1,000,000
31 95 $19,110   $0 $0 $0 $766,844 $766,844 $1,000,000
32 96 $19,110   $0 $0 $0 $815,925 $815,925 $1,000,000
33 97 $19,110   $0 $0 $0 $870,627 $870,627 $1,000,000
34 98 $19,110   $0 $0 $0 $932,229 $932,229 $1,000,000
35 99 $19,110   $0 $0 $0 $1,001,158 $1,001,158 $1,000,000

*Guaranteed values are calculated using the guaranteed maximum monthly deductions and guaranteed minimum interest rate for the duration of the policy.

**Nonguaranteed values are based on the current assumptions of the insurance company, which are certain to change.

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