Credit insurance is one of the most misunderstood and fraudulently marketed products in the field of personal finance. The types of insurance sold by creditors to debtors range from the old standard credit life and accident and sickness insurance to such worthless contracts as “life events” which will be explained below. Almost all of these policies are grossly overpriced and are a source of substantial profits for lenders and sales finance companies.
The use of insurance as a type of security for a loan or other extension of credit is not an inherently a bad choice. Both the creditor and the debtor can benefit from removing the risk of death or disability from the equation. If the reduced risk is a factor in providing a lower interest rate, or in basic credit approval, it can be a win-win situation. The problem arises, however, when the creditor intimidates or otherwise induces a customer to purchase an insurance product not for its effect on risk but as an additional and substantial source of revenue.
Normally insurance rates are set by the competitive market, which tends to hold rates down at least for the reasonably informed consumer who does some comparison shopping. Automobile insurance companies, for example, are highly competitive and the rates are seldom regulated. But in the context of an application for credit there may be no competition at the point of sale of the insurance. The creditor may be the only practicable source. The only “competition” is between insurance companies to see who can charge the highest premium and pay the highest commission to the creditor or its officers for selling the coverage. This tends to force rates up rather than down and has been dubbed “reverse competition”.
During the 1950s as consumer credit was expanding rapidly and many states had strict usury laws (laws limiting maximum finance charge rates) both lenders and sellers began relying on commissions from credit insurance premiums to pad the bottom line profits. Many engaged in selling excessive coverage (not needed to pay the debt if something happened to the debtor) and nearly all charged outrageous premiums, with 50% or more being paid to the creditor or its employees, officers or directors as “commissions” for writing the coverage. As incentives for paying as few claims as possible there were also “experience refunds” awarded to creditors, which sometimes raised the total compensation to 70% or more of the premiums. In addition, the premium was added to the loan or unpaid balance of the sale price and finance charges were charged on the premium.
Finally the National Association of Insurance Commissioners (NAIC) declared it had had enough of the consumer abuse and model legislation was drawn up and passed in nearly every state authorizing insurance commissioners to limit the amount and cost of credit life and accident and sickness insurance…the two biggest sellers in the field. In some jurisdictions the legislation had very little effect because the commissioners would not seriously exercise their new regulatory powers, but in others the rates came down almost immediately. Over a number of years where there was pressure from consumer groups the rates on these two products reached a reasonable level…with some states requiring that the rates produce a 50 or 60 per cent “loss ratio”….ratio of incurred claims to earned premiums….and limiting commission payments to creditors.
While this progress helped the consumer buying credit life and accident and sickness insurance creditors soon realized that it was easy to develop new products which were not regulated under the NAIC model law…products such as “involuntary unemployment insurance” to protect the consumer against job loss and “unpaid family leave” insurance to make payments in the event of a family emergency that required the debtor to have to leave his job temporarily.
Now, back to the question of whether you should purchase credit related insurance in connection with your next transaction, that really depends on the type of transactions, your individual circumstances and the kind of coverage in question. The first question to answer before deciding who to buy credit life insurance from is whether you need life insurance at all. The first step in the answer is “Do I already have life insurance in sufficient amount to cover this obligation and other needs?” If so it is obvious you don’t need any more, and the answer should be “No”.
Life insurance is justified when (a) there are dependents to be cared for after you are gone; (b) you have a moral obligation to a co-signer or co-maker or guarantor…possibly a family member…that you will pay at least your portion of an obligation, living or dead; (c) you own property or other assets which you want to leave to someone upon your demise, and unless this debt is otherwise paid the property may have to be sold to pay it; (d) you are buying something important “on time”, such as a home or an expensive vehicle, and don’t want it to be foreclosed or repossessed if you are not there to make the payments; or (e) you and a partner have invested heavily in a business that depends on both of you working, and you don’t want your partner to suffer a hardship if you are not there. There may be other reasons, but the point is that you must examine your individual circumstances.
You do NOT need life insurance if you have no dependents, own very little and are not leaving anything to anyone, and there is no co-maker to protect, because your debts essentially die with you. No one will have to pay them if you don’t. And if there is no money to bury or cremate your remains don’t worry. Something will be done with them because public health requires it. If you want an expensive send-off buy just enough to pay for the funeral and name a beneficiary with instructions to use it for that purpose so your creditors won’t try to grab it.
If you want to make gifts to others when you die, perhaps to make up for the mistreatment of them while you were around, life insurance is a very expensive “estate substitute”. It is better to put your money into savings than to pay it to some national insurance corporation on the hope that you will profit by dying. With life insurance you are essentially betting that you will die and the insurer is betting you won’t.
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Assuming you decide you need life insurance, the next question is whether to buy it from a creditor or on the open competitive market. Most of the time it is best to purchase a proper amount of term life insurance payable either to a beneficiary, or to a trust for the benefit of minor dependents, or to your estate to be used to pay your last rites and obligations. If you have it paid to a beneficiary, such as your spouse or children, your creditors cannot claim it for the payment of your bills….unless you designate a particular creditor as a beneficiary to the extent of your debt obligation. No creditor has an insurable interest in your life except to the extent of your debt.
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