Long-term readers have heard me recommend term life insurance over permanent life insurance many times over the last couple of years.  In this post I’ll discuss a few useful strategies to consider when purchasing your term insurance.

Insuring A Non-Working Spouse


As a general rule, life insurance is used to protect the bread-winner(s) of a family.  If no one depends on your income, you generally don’t need to insure against the loss of that income.  However, there are some factors you may want to consider when foregoing life insurance on a non-working spouse or partner.  First, a non-working spouse is most frequently female, and slightly younger than the working spouse.  That means the insurance is less expensive.  That’s not necessarily a reason to buy it, but it does make it cheaper to do so. A 10 year level term policy on a healthy 30 year old female with a $500K face value costs about $12 a month.

Second, you can assign an economic value (which is what you’re insuring) to the unpaid work of a non-working spouse.  The spouse may be providing child care, meal preparation, home maintenance, housekeeping, snow removal, laundry service, landscaping or other chores that you won’t have any more time to perform after your spouse’s death than you did before.  There is a real economic value there which you may wish to insure against.  You will either need to pay to have those services performed, cut back on night shifts, call, or time in clinic to do them yourself, eliminate some of your hobbies, vacations and other recreational pursuits, or some combination of the above.  It might be easier to buy a few hundred thousand dollars of term insurance.

Third, the loss of income of the non-working spouse may be only temporary.  If your spouse is going back to work in couple of years when Junior starts first grade and your financial plan is counting on that additional income, then you’d better get some insurance to cover the loss of that income.

Fourth, don’t underestimate the difficulty of the transition period after the loss of a loved one.  You and your children will struggle with the loss.  You may not even feel like working for a few months, or perhaps years.  It will take time to arrange affairs, and no business or disability insurance is going to cover this.  If your practice doesn’t make money unless you’re there, your overhead will continue to pile up.  Cash in hand from the insurance will at least eliminate the financial aspects of this tragedy.

Life Insurance In Residency

Many residents are married with children.  They have a net worth of zero, or more likely, less than zero.  Although student loans disappear at your death, consumer and mortgage loans are assessed against the value of your estate, and are probably co-signed by your surviving spouse.  There is probably never a greater need for large quantities of life insurance.  Residency is also the ideal time to lock in long-term life insurance since you are young and healthy and thus premiums are quite low.  Ideally, if you expect you’ll need $2-4 Million of term insurance later, you should buy it in residency.  The problem is that you have a relatively tiny income with which to pay the premiums.

Insurance companies don’t like you to be worth more dead than alive.  They don’t want to sell you life insurance that isn’t at least peripherally related to your income.  I had an insurance company balk when I tried to buy a $1 Million policy while I was a military physician.  They didn’t care so much that I was in the military, the issue was the fact that I was in the 15% tax bracket.  I was trying to buy a policy which in addition to my other two polices would have provided me something like 20 or 25 times my current annual income.  The agent eventually was able to convince the company to sell the policy based on the fact that I would soon triple my income.  Your agent may have to do something similar for you, but it shouldn’t be that hard.

A bigger dilemma is deciding how to structure your life insurance.  One option is to actually buy the insurance you need, but for a much shorter term.  For example, you could get a 5 year level term policy with a $3 Million face value.  This would run $755 per year, or about 1.5-2% of your resident income.  That’s expensive, but reasonable.  However, it would require you to run the risk of becoming uninsurable during your training.

If you instead decided to get a $3 Million, 30 year level term policy, you would be looking at $1,920 per year, over 4% of your annual income, which you may find to be simply unaffordable even though it is the policy you need.  You could buy $1 Million of 30 year level term for $680 a year, but then you’re running two significant risks.  The first is that you actually die during residency and your family only gets $1 Million of the $3 Million they need or want.  The second risk is that you become less insurable, or even uninsurable, due to illness or the acquiring of dangerous hobbies during your training.  There is no great option here, and each resident will need to decide what they are most comfortable with.  What I would not do, however, is avoid the issue.  If you have someone depending on your income, buy something.  $1 Million is better than nothing.  $3 Million for 5 years is also better than nothing.

Buying Life Insurance Upon Residency Graduation

Due to affordability issues during residency, or simply due to marrying or having children at that stage of life, many new attendings will have a need to buy insurance.  The purchase of life insurance, done properly, really only needs to be done once or twice in your life, but this is one of those times.  What you choose to do at this stage depends on what life insurance you already have in place.  If you are still healthy and haven’t picked up any bad habits, like smoking or rock climbing, you still have lots of options.  If you sucked it up and just bought a huge, long-term policy as a resident, well, at least that is now a tiny percentage of your income.  If you decided to partially insure yourself with a smaller, 30 year policy, you now have the option to buy an additional policy or two and keep the old one in place.  If you bought a shorter-term large policy, now is probably the time to replace it with a longer-term policy.  If you have become ill, or become SCUBA certified, then you have more of a dilemma.  You can wait until you are more insurable (being cancer-free for a few years may lower your premiums for instance or you can stop going SCUBA diving for a while).  You can also simply pay more for a policy since you now have the means to pay the premiums.

Laddering Life Insurance

The point of the “Buy Term And Invest The Difference” strategy is that your need for life insurance gradually decreases and eventually disappears as your portfolio grows.  If, after 20 years, you have a $2 Million portfolio, it seems silly to keep the same 30 year level term $3 Million policy you bought upon residency graduation when you had a negative net worth.  But you don’t necessarily want to cancel that policy and buy a $1 Million policy.  A $3 Million 30 year policy on a 30 year old male is $1920 per year.  A $1 Million 10 year policy on a 50 year old male is $875 per year, or 27% cheaper per dollar of protection provided.  A better strategy might be to ladder a policy, just like a retiree might ladder treasury bonds or CDs.  Instead of buying one 30 year $1 Million policy, you could buy a 10 year $1 Million policy, a 20 year  $1 Million policy, and a 30 year $1 Million policy.  Since the shorter policies are much cheaper, you can save a lot of money on premiums will still covering your insurance needs. It helps you to avoid over insuring.

You should also keep in mind the effects of inflation.  Although inflation makes the dollars you pay premiums with worth less each year, it also makes the dollars paid out in benefits worth less.  A $1 Million policy right now might only be the equivalent of $553K in 20 years.   This, in essence, has the effect of automatically laddering a policy, since it costs less and is worth less over time.

Joe Capone, an insurance agent, regular reader, and an advertiser on the blog, recently emailed me to point out a unique insurance product offered by Banner insurance.  One downside of laddering policies is that you have to pay an annual policy fee for each policy.  Due to this fee, it is cheaper to own one $3 Million 30 year policy than three $1 Million 30 year policies.  The Banner product uses riders to ladder a policy in any of several ways, all while still charging just one policy fee.  It is also noteworthy that when you compare term insurance premiums on a site like Joe’s insuringincome.com, (free and no personal data required to get instant quotes) that Banner usually shows up near the top of the list.  Here’s an example of how using the laddered product can save you money.  (Thanks to Joe for providing the quotes)

Using a healthy 30 year old male as an example:

Annual Premium for a 30 year level term $3 Million policy: $2040

Annual Premium for a 30 year level term $1 Million: $720
Annual Premium for a 20 year level term $1 Million: $430
Annual Premium for a 10 year level term $1 Million: $260

Total: $1410

Annual Premium for Laddered $1 Million 30 year Policy with 10 and 20 year $1 Million Riders: $1290

So by avoiding the policy fees, you can save $120 a year.  It’s not much, but it beats a kick in the teeth.  Notice how big the savings is for laddering a policy, rather than overinsuring with the 30 year $3 Million policy – over $600 per year!

What strategies have you used for your term insurance?  Vote in the polls and comment below!

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