Back in 2013, I did a series on the Myths of Whole Life Insurance. The last time I updated it was 2014. It’s time to do it again. For those not familiar with this series, each “myth” is basically an illustration of a method used by an agent to sell a policy inappropriately. For each myth, I’ll demonstrate why it is misleading, a half-truth, or an outright lie. We pick up the series again at # 24. If you haven’t heard the first 23, you can find them here:
# 24 Whole Life Insurance Keeps Assets Off The FAFSA
This is one is merely misleading. The statement as it stands is true. The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) does NOT consider whole life insurance cash value as an asset of the student or the parents. The problem is, for the typical reader of this blog, that it doesn’t matter. Your income alone will keep your child from qualifying for any need-based college financial aid. So if you buy a whole life policy for this reason, you’re likely to be disappointed.
# 25 Term Life Expires Without Paying Anything
Another misleading argument. I’m always surprised to see people fall for this line, but they do. Do you complain when you don’t get to use your car insurance for any given six month period? How about when your house doesn’t burn down? Or you don’t get cancer and get to use your health insurance? Then why in the world would you complain that your term life insurance expires and you’re still alive. Term life insurance is pure insurance. If you die, it pays. If you live, it doesn’t. As a general rule, since on average insurance must cost more than it pays out (since insurance companies have both expenses and profits), you should insure against financial catastrophes. When it comes to death, the financial catastrophe is dying during your earning years, before you become financially independent. So that’s the only time period you need to insure against. Some people only fall halfway for this argument, and buy return of premium term life insurance. The same principle applies, of course. You don’t walk away empty-handed when your term life policy expires. You had insurance for the entire term, which is exactly what you needed.
# 26 Whole Life Insurance is the Perfect Investment
This outright lie comes from the true believers. They argue that whole life insurance is safe, liquid, tax-advantaged, creditor-proof, and offers a competitive return. These half-truths all add up to one big lie. Let’s take them one at a time:
# 1 Safe
Safe from the cash value going down, perhaps, but not safe from losing money. A huge percentage of whole life insurance purchasers lose money because they cancel the policy at some point in the first 5-15 years before they break even on their “investment.”
# 2 Liquidfair liquidity even prior to that date. Most of the time with whole life insurance you don’t even get your money, you just have the right to borrow against it at pre-set terms. You can get that with a HELOC.
# 3 Tax-advantaged
Few understand just how minor the tax advantages of whole life insurance are. There is no up-front deduction like a 401(k). Unlike a real investment, there are no capital gains rates if you surrender a policy with a gain and you cannot deduct the loss if you surrender it with a loss (the usual case.) You don’t get to use depreciation to reduce the tax burden of your income like with real estate. Instead of being able to withdraw the money tax-free like with a Roth IRA, you can only borrow against the policy, and that’s tax-free but not interest-free, just like borrowing against your house, car, or mutual fund portfolio. Sure, you don’t pay taxes on the “dividends”, but that’s because they’re actually a return of premium (i.e. you paid too much for the insurance). The only real tax break associated with life insurance is that the death benefit is tax-free. But that isn’t any different from any other investment, where you get the step-up in basis at death. In addition, whole life can’t be stretched like an IRA. The tax benefits, such as they are, are limited to a single generation.
# 4 Creditor-proof
Too few docs understand just how low the risk of needing this protection actually is. I calculate my risk of being successfully sued for an amount above policy limits at 1 in 10,000 per year. Maybe half that now that I’m practicing half-time. So should I be so unlucky as to be that one person, I would declare bankruptcy and be left only with protected assets. In my state, that’s my retirement accounts, my spouse’s assets, $40,000 in home equity, and whole life insurance cash value. Your state may or may not protect whole life insurance cash value. Please actually check if you are so paranoid to actually buy whole life insurance for this reason.
# 5 Competitive Return
Are you kidding me? Competitive with what? Whole life insurance generally has a negative return for 5-15 years (sometimes more than 30 for really terrible policies). Even a good policy held for 5+ decades only guarantees a 2% return and projects a 5% return.
If I were going to draw up the perfect investment, it would definitely avoid the following characteristics of whole life insurance
- Guaranteed negative return for years
- Requirement to interact with and pay a commission to an insurance agent
- Requirement to give samples of body fluids and submit to a medical exam
- Requirement to answer pesky questions about my health
- Requirement to avoid risky activities
- Requirement to pay interest in order to use my own money
It only qualifies as an “okay” investment in certain very limited situations. It’s not even close to a perfect one.
# 27 Insurance Agents Are Just People
This is one of my favorites to see in any sort of discussion with an insurance agent about the merits of whole life insurance. It usually comes when I point out that my problem with whole life insurance isn’t so much the product as the way in which it is sold. Obviously, many of them take that quite personally since they’ve dedicated their life and career to selling this product inappropriately. So they point out that there are bad doctors or that insurance agents are just people trying to make a living. I don’t have a problem with the sales profession. I don’t even have a problem with people earning commissions for selling stuff. Cindy gets paid on commission to sell ads right here at The White Coat Investor. But if you seek advice from Cindy about whether buying an ad at The White Coat Investor is a good idea for you, you’re a fool. Insurance agents are just people and people respond to incentives. An insurance agent has a huge incentive to sell you a whole life policy. The commission on a policy is 50-110% of the first year’s premium. Now you know why he’s trying so hard to sell you a big fat doctor policy.
# 28 No 1099 Income With Whole Life
This was a new one to me. I thought I had heard every possible argument for buying a whole life policy until someone whipped this one out. How much trouble is it for you to deal with a 1099? It takes me about 30 seconds using Turbotax. Certainly not a reason to favor one investment over another. Remember not to let the tax tail wag the investment dog. Your goal isn’t to minimize your taxes or maximize your tax-free income. It’s to have the most money AFTER paying the taxes due.
# 29 What Does The White Coat Investor Know? He’s Just a Doctor, and Probably a Crappy One
Sometimes agents start with this argument, but frequently this is where they end, with ad hominem attacks. Sometimes it’s phrased like one of these:
So, exactly how does being an ER doctor qualify you to give financial and insurance related advice?
Do everyone a favor and stick to studying medicine.
You’re young, a doctor and absolutely sure that you know everything.
Obviously, medicine has lots of problems and doctors don’t know everything, but if the agent’s best argument for whole life insurance is an ad hominem attack, that’s a good sign that you should have stood up and walked out a long time ago.
There you go. Six more myths used to sell whole life insurance inappropriately. Come back in a few more years and I’ll probably have some new ones to add to the list. In the meantime, here’s a post about everything you need to know about whole life insurance.
What do you think? What myths have you seen used to sell whole life insurance? Why do otherwise intelligent high-income professionals fall for these? Comment below!