Is the life insurance you’re getting through your employer enough to take care of your family? And are you paying too much for that coverage? A healthy 50-year-old male could save nearly 80% on premiums in the first year alone by switching from an employer-provided term life insurance policy to an individual one, according to the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors (NAPFA), a professional association of fee-only financial planners. Young, healthy employees might also be better off with individual coverage, since they can lock in low rates for decades.
But many companies pay for some amount of life insurance for their workers; they also allow workers to purchase more coverage for themselves and their spouses at a low cost and with no medical exam. As a result, many families obtain all of their life insurance through an employer. If you make $75,000 per year, your employer might provide $75,000 or $150,000 in coverage at little or no out-of-pocket cost to you, and the premiums will come straight out of your paycheck. This way, you’ll never miss the money or worry about paying the bill. And even if you’ve had less-than-perfect health, you’ll qualify for just as much coverage as your co-workers. That all sounds enticing, but there are several potential problems with obtaining life insurance through work.
Problem 1: Your Employer May Not Offer Enough Life Insurance
While basic employer-provided life insurance is low-cost or free, and you may be able to buy additional coverage at low rates, your policy’s face value still may not be high enough. If your premature death would be a financial burden to your spouse and/or children, you probably need coverage worth five to eight times your annual salary. Some experts even recommend getting coverage worth 10 to 12 times your annual salary. (For related reading, see: How Much Life Insurance Should You Carry?)
“Most people are able to buy an additional four to six times their salary in supplemental coverage over and above what’s provided by their employer," says Brian Frederick, a Certified Financial Planner (CFP®) with Stillwater Financial Partners in Scottsdale, Arizona. “While this amount is sufficient for some people, it isn’t enough for employees that have non-working spouses, a sizable mortgage, large families or special needs dependents.”
Another shortcoming? “Death benefits that replace salary do not take into account bonuses, commissions, second incomes and the value of additional benefits such as medical insurance and retirement contributions,” says Mitchell Barber, a financial services professional at the Center for Wealth Preservation, a Syosset, New York-based agency of MassMutual Financial Group.
Your employer’s group life insurance might be sufficient if you’re single or if you have a spouse who isn’t dependent on your income to cover household expenses and you don’t have children. But if you’re in this situation, you probably don’t need life insurance at all. (For related reading, see: When Life Insurance Isn't Worth It.)
Problem 2: You’ll Lose Your Coverage If Your Job Situation Changes
As with health insurance, you don’t want gaps in your life insurance coverage because you never know when you might need it. Most workers who get coverage through work don’t know where their life insurance will come from if they change jobs, are laid off, their employer goes out of business or they switch from full-time to part-time status. You usually won’t be able to keep your policy in these scenarios. Lack of portability can be a problem if you aren’t going directly to another job with similar coverage and aren’t healthy enough to qualify for an individual policy. Some policies do allow you to convert your group policy to an individual one, but it will likely become much more expensive, as you’ll be converting your term policy to a costlier permanent policy. And if you’re losing your coverage because you were laid off, the premiums might be unaffordable.
“Since the products that are available for conversion from an employer-provided plan are typically limited to just one insurance carrier’s offerings, a client can generally find a more cost-efficient insurance policy outside of the employer’s plan,” says Thaddeus J. Dziuba III, a life insurance specialist for PRW Wealth Management in Quincy, Mass. “This presupposes that the client can obtain favorable underwriting, however. As a rule of thumb, if a client can no longer get medically underwritten for new insurance coverage but still has a financial need for the death benefit provided by his or her company’s plan, then we often advise conversion regardless of price, since it will be unlikely that they can obtain coverage elsewhere,” he adds. (For related reading, see: What to Expect When Applying for Life Insurance.)
Problem 3: Coverage Gets Tricky If Your Health Declines
Another problem arises if you’re leaving your job because of a health problem. “If you rely solely or heavily upon group insurance, and then suffer a medical condition that forces you to leave your job, you may be losing your life insurance coverage just when your family is going to need it the most,” says Jim Saulnier, a CFP® with Jim Saulnier & Associates in Fort Collins, Colo. “At that point it may be too late to purchase your own policy at an affordable rate, if at all, depending on the medical condition,” he says.
Even if your health problems aren’t significant enough to stop you from working, they might limit your employment options if you only have life insurance through work. “You could end up handcuffed to your job to keep the life insurance if you experienced a serious enough health issue,” says David Rae, a CFP® and vice president of client services for Trilogy Financial Services in Los Angeles.
Also, you don’t control who provides this insurance, and your company could choose a lower-rated insurance company to save money. That could mean the insurance you paid for won’t be there to cover you when you need it. Be sure to check the A.M. Best rating of the life insurance company behind the benefit your employer offers. This rating will tell you whether the company is financially stable enough to pay your policy if the worst happens. Finally, another possibility is your employer could stop offering life insurance as a benefit to save the company money, leaving you without coverage.
Problem 4: Your Plan Doesn’t Provide Enough Coverage for Your Spouse
While your employer’s benefits package probably provides health insurance for your spouse, it won’t always provide life insurance for him or her. If it does, the coverage may be minimal—$100,000 is a common amount, and that doesn’t go far when you lose your husband or wife unexpectedly.
Couples often assume the family will only suffer economic hardship if the primary breadwinner dies, says Jim Saulnier, and as a result, many workers fail to adequately insure their spouses. But the death of a non-working or lower-earning spouse can impact by their partner’s income. “I often say rhetorically to a client, if your wife dies on Saturday are you going back to work Monday morning? Do you have ample PTO [paid time off] on the books to cover an extended leave?”
What’s more, says Barber, “When one parent is absent, the other must take up the slack with day care or chauffeuring. Hours are cut back. There is never time to properly grieve and, as survivors are often depressed, productivity often falls.” (For more, see: Insuring Against the Loss of a Homemaker.)
Problem 5: Employer-Provided Life Insurance May Not Be Your Cheapest Option
Even if you can get all the life insurance you need for both you and your spouse through your employer, it’s a good idea to shop around to see if your employer’s supplemental insurance really offers the best value for the money. You’re more likely to find a better rate elsewhere the younger and healthier you are. Also, unlike the guaranteed level-premium term life insurance you can purchase individually, which costs you the same amount every year for as long as you have the policy, the policy provided by your employer tends to get more expensive as you age.
“Employer coverage starts out being very cheap prior to age 35 and then rapidly increases in price,” says Frederick. “Most policies increase every five years and become incredibly expensive once the employee turns 50. If you are healthy and a non-smoker, buying a stand-alone policy might be cheaper than taking coverage through your employer.”
“The reason for this is called moral hazard,” Saulnier says. “Employees who are too unhealthy to qualify for life insurance on their own tend to overload the group insurance because there is no underwriting, and life insurance companies make up for it by charging higher premiums.” Overall, healthy people in group policies pay more than they would if they purchased private policies.
While there’s no reason not to take advantage of any free or inexpensive insurance your employer offers, it probably shouldn’t be your only source of life insurance, nor should most people rely heavily on the supplemental life insurance they can get through work. The solution to each of the problems described above is to purchase some or all of your life insurance directly through an individual term policy. You might need to purchase as much as 80% of your life insurance on your own to have enough and to make sure you’re covered at all times and under all circumstances.
If you don’t qualify medically for life insurance, you can purchase an individual term policy called “guaranteed issue,” which doesn’t require medical underwriting. These policies are typically much smaller and much more expensive than what you’d get under a term policy that you qualified for medically, but as long as you can afford the premiums (and life insurance premiums should be a priority in your budget), having this coverage is better than nothing. And if your health improves (for example, you quit smoking or overcome hypertension), you might be able to qualify for a medically underwritten individual policy and drop the more expensive policy that doesn’t require medical underwriting. (For related reading, see: Who Should Buy a Guaranteed Issue Life Insurance Policy?)
Barber believes that, on the whole, the most affordable solution is to buy the most insurance you can afford at the youngest age, since, as you age, the chance of acquiring an illness goes up, and with illness comes more expensive premiums, if you can qualify at all.
The Bottom Line
You need enough life insurance to cover all your debts and support your dependents. “Enough” includes paying off your credit cards, car loans and mortgage, paying for your children’s education, and making sure your spouse will have the financial means to take care of him or herself and your children. In a time of grief, the last thing you want is to leave your loved ones with another major life upheaval such as having to change jobs or schools because of financial strain, so take a close look at whether the life insurance you’re getting through work is the best way to provide for your loved ones.