What is indexed universal life insurance?

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July 2016
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This is a great question. In fact, because of how complex indexed universal life policies can be, I've even heard this question asked by other advisors. If I may, I'd like to give my true and honest assessment of indexed universal life policies.

Indexed Universal life (IULs) are a type of universal life policy. The universal portion means that premiums are flexible and the components of the life insurance policy (death benefit, savings element and premium) can be altered throughout the contract. Universal policies are also permanent insurance policies, like a whole life policy, although there are some major differences between universal life and whole life. One difference lies in the flexibility of universal life and the inflexibility of whole life.

Within universal life policies, there is a cash component as well as an insurance component. It is the cash component that makes IULs differ from VULs (Variable Universal life) and ULs (Universal life). The cash bucket inside of a indexed universal life policy grows as a result of index performance (and the indexes are usually selected by the client or advisor each year). The indexes will usually reflect broad market indexes like the S&P 500, DJIA, etc. This all seems pretty simple.

HOWEVER, the complex part kicks in when you start to study how the "interest" or "cash growth" is calculated on these policies. To truly understand this will require you to either spend ample time studying the policy you are considering purchasing inside and out or have an enormous amount of trust in the person recommending it. However, even if you trust your advisor, I would advise you to do the studying yourself. The reason is that these products all work differently and even advisors with the best intentions can overlook how these work. Let me provide some examples of what I'm talking about.

Let's say you select the S&P 500 index for your cash bucket. Your advisor tells you that you can experience the upside of the S&P 500 without any downside. That kind of sounds too good to be true. Well, it is. That's because these indexes will either have a cap on the upside earnings or a participation rate. A cap is straight forward. The S&P 500 index may have a cap of 4%. So your max upside is not what the S&P earns, it's 4%, and the downside is still 0%. If you have a participation rate instead of a cap, and the participation rate is 50%, you will earn 1/2 of what the S&P 500 gets. So, if the S&P earns 8%, you get 4%, with a downside of 0%.

Another point to consider is that the S&P 500, as used in our example, also derives some of its total return from dividend yield. So, if the S&P appreciates 4% and has a 2% dividend yield, then the total return will be 6% - BUT, this is likely not the case in an IUL since dividends are typically not part of the growth calculation.

If you study these products further, you'll also notice the phrase "point to point." This refers to the time frame that an index is evaluated. For example, staying with our S&P 500 index, let's assume you've selected the S&P 500 Annual point to point. This means that in order to calculate the interest earned, the life insurance company will evaluate the price of the S&P 500 on the day the policy becomes in force and will not apply interest until the index is re-evaluated one year later. If the index is higher, you'll get credited interest. If not, you won't. If it was higher a day before but took a brief momentary dip, you won't see any interest credited for another whole year, which negates the benefits of compound interest.

Since this has turned into a long-winded response already, let me just say these final thoughts:

1. Understand how the indexes work. Ask a lot of questions. Ask if you can choose your issue date. Know your best and worst case scenario.

2. Make sure that the illustrations that are shown to you reflect a realistic rate of return. If you the illustrations you are looking at assume a 7% annual rate of return, you need to ask them to re-run at something more conservative. Is it possible to get 7% on average over a long period of time? Yes. BUT, that is without caps and participation rates involved. To be safe and to make sure your policy does not lapse, I would suggest projecting a more conservative return (like 4%).

3. Explore other alternatives to IULs. GUL (Guaranteed Universal Life) policies, for example, are incredibly straight forward and are backed by a guarantee from the insurance company. That leaves little room for misunderstandings or misleading life insurance illustrations. UL policies are also easier to understand in my opinion. This doesn't mean GULs and ULs are better the IULs, but it means if you're unfamiliar with how IULs work, you should either do your homework or consider choosing a different policy type.

Good luck,

Joe Allaria, CFP®

September 2016
July 2009