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Clients being ever vigilant for the fine print or hidden costs occasionally ask how I get paid. The core of the question for them is, of course, any additional cost they might incur above and beyond the premium.

How do life insurance agents get paid? This isn’t a question of whole life insurance vs. term life insurance. Almost all life insurance agents are paid on a commission basis by the company. For term insurance it is generally a percentage of the first year premium with no renewal commissions paid. With whole life or universal life it is generally a percentage of the first year premium and a modest renewal commission for anywhere from 5-10 years.

I’ve made no bones about the fact that I’m not a fan of whole life insurance. I believe that if you get down to the core of why agents choose to concentrate on whole life insurance vs. term life insurance or even universal life with a no lapse guarantee, it’s commission. I’ve been torn asunder for this assertion on a number of occasions by whole life agents who will claim to their death that they really believe whole life is the answer for all life insurance needs.

I maintain there is a point when a person “outlives” the need for most of the life insurance they might carry during their child raising, higher income days. So, let me just throw out some facts and you can give it some thought. Maybe I’m all wet. Maybe not.

Let’s use a 48 year old guy who needs $1 million of coverage. He’s a doctor and is confident he will be comfortably retired by age 70. Just to give him a little wiggle room we got him $1 million of 30 year term that will cost $3320 a year at the preferred rate he qualifies for due to his being a private pilot. At the end of 30 years he will have paid $99,600 for the protection he wanted. If he reached a point before then that he had outgrown the need for it, he could have dropped it and paid less.

He can get $1mm of whole life for $21,000 a year. Over the next 30 years his premiums will total $630,000, but that will be offset (according to the whole life agents) by the fact that the policy will have accrued cash value of $591,572. So, without digging any further it’s plain that a person could take the cash value and end up paying about $38,500 for the insurance over that 30 year period. Good deal?

So, where’s my leg to stand on? Well, let’s start with the most obvious, $300 a month versus $1750 gets my attention. But what if money just really isn’t an issue. I know “buy term and invest the difference” is a worn out, beat up old piece of common sense, but really, it still is common sense. If you can afford $21,000 a year without stressing your budget, buy the term and free up $17,680 a year to invest outside the policy.

Whole life guys will tell you no one has the discipline to actually budget that $17,680 and invest it, so the whole life is a kind of forced investment/savings/retirement plan. Well, that may be true for some, but I would venture a guess that if someone can’t do that, they will also eventually lapse the whole life policy. If they lapse their insurance their family has no coverage. If they don’t invest the $17,680 one year, they still have all of their life insurance.

So, what if a disciplined investor socks away $17,680 a year for 30 years? At a fairly modest 6% return, that generates $1,481,000. There are plenty of mutual funds out there that have averaged 12% or more for a very long time now. What if they put that extra money into those kind of funds? At 12% “the difference” generates nearly $5 million. Even with the taxes that will be due it beats whole life.

And about that cash value. Generally it isn’t left alone. The truth is that the agents will tell you that you can borrow it (use it as your personal bank) or pay premiums from it. Well, unless you pay back the loan the death benefit has been reduced.

Now all the claims I’ve made came from a real whole life policy from a highly rated company. I took all of my numbers off of the guaranteed side of the illustration. Any agent that would use the non guaranteed figures to sway you to buy should have to take in your family and care for them when you die without any insurance.

Bottom line. If you lack discipline and have enough money to buy whole life insurance, buy term life insurance and put the difference on an automatic eft into an investment plan.

I almost forgot why I got off on this subject. So let’s circle back: how do life insurance agents get paid? It’s the commission. On the term insurance an agent would typically get about 90% of the first year premium or about $3000. The whole life agent would typically get about 70%, so they make $14,700 the first year. Normally they would get around 3% annually on renewals, $630 a year, for at least 5 years, another $3150 in commission, $17850 total. So, all I’ve been saying is that the amount of commission could certainly be a factor in swaying someone to push a client in a direction that just might not be best for the client.