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What to Expect When You’re Shopping for Life Insurance

Let’s face it: most people don’t get excited about the idea of buying life insurance. But for many, the pandemic has given them pause. A recent survey shows that 45% of younger Americans (ages 22-40) are more likely to buy life insurance today than they were before COVID.

If you’re finding yourself in the “more likely” column these days, knowing what to expect can make it easier to get started. So we asked Paul Dougherty, a veteran life insurance agent based in Maryland and past president of the National Association of Insurance and Financial Advisors, for his insights. We also talked with Marilyn Gill, a 48-year-old life insurance shopper in San Francisco, about her recent experience buying a policy through an online broker.

Understand the role of an agent

“We are at our best when we are solving a problem for a customer that they may not even know they have,” says Dougherty. “Our job as agents is to get to know you and to be able to look around the corner for you.”

A licensed insurance professional will conduct a comprehensive financial needs analysis, and walk you through the questions that will help you determine how much and what kind of insurance is right for you. This consultation is free.

“We are not transactional professionals,” says Dougherty. “You have a thousand things on your to-do list. We have the luxury of looking at this through the lens of where the potential downfalls are, and helping you solve those risks before they become catastrophic. When we can shine light on some of those questions that maybe you’ve never even asked yourself, and then turn that light to some solutions, that’s a great feeling.”

Online coverage is always better than none

“The best type of policy is the one that’s there when you need it,” says Dougherty.

If a new customer has an online policy, “We let them know they made a good choice. We often just leave that in place and build a plan around it to supplement what’s there. I tell people I’m either going to give you a better package, or I’m going to make you feel better about what you have. In some cases, they may have exactly what they need.”

For Gill, “I would love to have someone handling all my insurance needs, but I didn’t have an existing agent, and I would have felt way too awkward calling one and going into all my health history. I also like to research things online.” A sales and design consultant for a commercial gardener, she spent evenings and weekends gathering information before submitting an application. 

Look for help from a licensed agent

“Our language is unique to our business,” says Dougherty, “and it’s not common for customers to understand it. We explain how different policies work and show our customers how we can get to a solution through a variety of different methods.”

Expect help from a licensed agent even if you’re shopping online. Says Gill, “I wouldn’t have moved forward with an online policy if I didn’t have the option to talk to people on the phone. It’s too big of a decision to do completely online.”

Five tips in choosing an agent:

    • Get referrals
    • Find out about their specialties
    • Ask if they hold any professional memberships
    • Schedule introductory meetings
    • Inquire about their education and training.

Get ready to cast aside preconceptions

“I learned a whole lot,” says Gill. “One of the things I learned was that if you have a health condition that’s being successfully treated, your rates might not be affected. That was eye-opening. I had been quite stressed out about that.”

As an ex-smoker, she was also relieved to find out her former habit would have no impact on her rates. “If you’re in relatively good health now, that’s all that matters.”

For many people, the biggest eye-opener is cost. According to the 2021 Insurance Barometer Study, consumers wildly overestimate the cost of life insurance. In fact, a healthy 30-year-old can get a $250,000 20-year level term policy for about $13 a month. In Gill’s case, she purchased a policy for less than $50 a month that would pay off her mortgage with room to spare, giving her college-age daughter “my biggest asset free and clear.”

Know the key questions

Dougherty says, “Ask yourself, if something were to happen to you tomorrow, what would be the financial impact on those you care for?”

An agent will help you quantify this impact through a confidential discussion of your income and other assets, along with your debts (like a mortgage). They’ll ask who you’d like the policy to provide for — what’s known as a beneficiary. And they’ll ask about your health condition, hobbies and other activities that might affect your eligibility. Have this information handy, along with any initial thoughts and questions.

Questions to ask your agent:

How much life insurance do I need?

When making your decision, longevity and financial strength matter.

If you’re looking at a handful of companies with similar rates, consider reputation, financial strength and longevity over cost.

“You have to trust that the company has been around and will be around—that they’re financially strong enough to make a promise and keep it 40-50 years from now,” says Dougherty. The A.M. Best Company rates insurance companies on their ability to meet their financial obligations, while the Better Business Bureau and J.D. Powers rank customer satisfaction.