What are life insurance classifications?

Life insurance classifications are based on your health history and used by insurers to set your policy premiums.

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Nupur Gambhir

Nupur Gambhir

Senior Editor & Licensed Life Insurance Expert

Nupur Gambhir is a licensed life, health, and disability insurance expert and a former senior editor at Policygenius. Her insurance expertise has been featured in Bloomberg News, Forbes Advisor, CNET, Fortune, Slate, Real Simple, Lifehacker, The Financial Gym, and the end-of-life planning service Cake.

&Amanda Shih

Amanda Shih

Editor & Licensed Life Insurance Expert

Amanda Shih is a licensed life, disability, and health insurance expert and a former editor at Policygenius, where she covered life insurance and disability insurance. Her expertise has appeared in Slate, Lifehacker, Little Spoon, and J.D. Power.

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By

Patrick Hanzel, CFP®

Patrick Hanzel, CFP®

Certified Financial Planner™ & Advanced Planning Team Lead

Patrick Hanzel, CFP®, is a Certified Financial Planner™ and Advanced Planning Team Lead at Policygenius. His expertise has been featured at Lifehacker, Consumer Affairs, Authority Magazine, Thrive Global, and Fatherly.

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When you apply for life insurance, you are assigned a health classification based on your application details. If you present fewer insurance risks — like complex health conditions, risky habits, or dangerous hobbies — you’ll get a better classification and more affordable rates than someone who raises some flags. 

Life insurance companies use roughly the same four classifications to determine your premiums. But, each company varies slightly in how they assign those classifications. For example, while it’s common to receive a lower classification for any tobacco use, some providers give infrequent cigar smokers a better classification than casual cigarette smokers.

Key takeaways

  • Life insurance classifications reflect how risky you are to insure and determine how much you pay for coverage.

  • Insurers use your hobbies, health, and family history to determine your classification.

  • The classifications are Preferred Plus, Preferred, Standard Plus, Standard, and Substandard.

  • People in Preferred Plus classifications get the lowest rates.

What are the different health classifications?

The four life insurance health classifications are: 

  • Preferred Plus

  • Preferred

  • Standard Plus

  • Standard

People with more complex medical histories may fall into a broader category called Substandard or Table ratings. Providers also have health classifications exclusively for smokers, which come with significantly higher rates.

Preferred Plus

Sometimes called Preferred Elite, Super Preferred, or Preferred Select, this is the best classification you can get and comes with the lowest premiums. You’re in excellent health, your height-to-weight ratio falls into the insurance company’s desired range, and your family history is as squeaky clean as your lifestyle.

Preferred

Outside of a few minor factors, like high cholesterol or high blood pressure, you’re in very good health. You won’t get Preferred Plus rates, but your premiums will still be very competitive.

Standard Plus

You’re in good health, but you might have a few outliers to keep an eye on or your height-to-weight ratio doesn’t fall into the insurer’s range for Preferred classifications. Your family history is unremarkable, so you shouldn’t have any surprises in your future.

Standard

A common difference between Standard and Standard Plus is that your family history plays a role, and your family members probably had medical issues before age 60. You will see higher life insurance premiums in this class, but you’re still able to get insured.

Table ratings

This isn’t a specific rating classification like the others; instead, based on your health history, you’re placed in the Substandard category, which is graded by either letters or numbers (typically A to J or 1 to 10). This reflects a complicated health history or recent health issues, such as a heart attack.

Your premium will, on average, be the Standard price plus 25% for every level down the table ratings:

  • A = Standard + 25%

  • B = Standard + 50%

  • C = Standard + 75%

  • D = Standard + 100%

  • E = Standard + 125%

  • F = Standard + 150%

  • G = Standard + 175%

  • H = Standard + 200%

  • I = Standard + 225%

  • J = Standard + 250%

You could pay an extra 250% on your premiums at a Table J/Table 10 health classification, which isn’t ideal. But you can still get insured and provide for your dependents when you die.

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How are life insurance classifications determined?

Insurance companies look at a wide range of health and lifestyle factors during underwriting to set your classification, including:

Health status

You’ll have to take a medical exam — unless you qualify for accelerated underwriting — and answer questions about your health. This includes:

  • Medical conditions

  • Prescription history

  • Treatment for existing conditions

The insurance company might also request an attending physician’s statement (APS) from your doctor to learn more about your health history.

Height and weight

Each life insurance company has its own Build Table that places you in a health classification based on height-to-weight ratios, similar to a BMI (Body Mass Index) measurement. While each company’s table is different, you’re more likely to receive higher rates if, according to the CDC guidelines, you are considered underweight, overweight, or obese

Insurance companies also consider your weight history. Losing weight can help you save money on your life insurance premiums, but you won’t benefit much from sudden or short-term weight loss. 

Tobacco use

Smoking, using chewing tobacco, or vaping will significantly raise your rates; smokers pay up to three times more for life insurance than non-smokers. 

Here’s how smoking affects your health classification: 

  • Preferred Smoker: You’d probably fall into the Preferred classification if you didn’t smoke. This will usually apply to occasional smokers or people who use smokeless tobacco.

  • Standard Smoker: You’d otherwise fall into one of the Standard classifications. If you want premium savings, you need to kick your smoking habit (for at least a year) before applying for life insurance. 

While quitting smoking can decrease the cost of your life insurance over time, ex-smokers will still see an initial hike in their premiums. The longer you don’t smoke, the more opportunity there is to get lower premiums when you apply for a policy. 

Alcohol and drug use

Having a beer every once in a while won’t affect your premiums, but insurance companies will have some concerns if you have abused drugs and/or alcohol.

Many major insurers offer non-smoker classifications to marijuana users, depending on how often you smoke. 

Family health history

During an initial evaluation, you will likely be asked to disclose if anyone in your family has been diagnosed with, treated for, or died from:

  • Cancer

  • Diabetes

  • Heart disease

  • Kidney disease 

Family health history is particularly important when it comes to conditions that can be inherited. If your family has a history of illness, it will count against you, especially if a close family member died before age 60.

Lifestyle

This is a catch-all category that evaluates how risky your lifestyle is based on details like: 

For drivers, multiple moving violations will raise your rates, while DWIs within the last five years will result in a declined application.

If you’re a base jumper or a fan of flying single-engine planes, your chance of premature death is higher than someone who likes to curl up with a nice book on the couch. You will either have an exclusion in your policy — meaning if your death is caused by a specific activity, your policy won’t pay out — or have a flat extra added to your premiums. 

A flat extra fee costs about $2 to $5 for every $1,000 of coverage you have. That’s an extra $5,000 a year on a $1 million life insurance policy.

Criminal history

A misdemeanor isn’t going to hurt your chances of getting life insurance; it probably won’t even affect the classification you receive. But if you have a felony on your record, you’ll want to wait for as long as you can to apply for life insurance to avoid high premiums.

Each insurance company has its own criteria for determining how much each of the factors above affects your classification. Insurers also allow some flexibility in assigning classifications based on other criteria, called stretch criteria. The different approaches to setting classifications mean you’ll probably see different quotes from company to company.

How life insurance classifications impact your rates

A Preferred Plus classification earns the lowest rates, with prices increasing gradually for each classification from there. 

A $500,000, 20-year term life insurance policy costs $25 to $30 per month for a 35-year-old non-smoker in a Preferred health classification and $77 to $93 per month for smokers. Compare that to $38 to $46 per month in a Standard non-smoker health classification or $101 to $129 in a Standard smoker classification. 

While there isn’t a major increase if you fall one or two health classification levels, the gap widens significantly if you compare Preferred and Substandard classifications.

→ Learn more about how medical conditions impact your rates

How to get a better life insurance classification

Your life insurance classification is the final determinant of how much you’ll pay to protect your family. Here’s how you can increase your chances of a favorable classification: 

  • Apply early: Your life insurance rates increase by an average of 4.5-9% a year every year you put off applying, so you’ll save more the younger you are when you apply.

  • Improve your health: Some health factors, like your family history, are out of your control. But if you maintain health improvements for a year or longer, you’re more likely to get competitive rates.

  • Quit smoking: In the example above, you could save at least $63 per month — $15,120 over the life of a 20-year policy — just by going from a Preferred smoker class to a Preferred non-smoker class.

Even if you have a chronic illness, it’s not impossible to find a budget-friendly policy; for conditions like diabetes, insurers may work with you if you can show that you’re managing the condition via medication and other recommendations from your physician. 

Since every life insurance company weighs risk and assigns health classifications using different criteria, comparing rates from multiple providers will help you find the best policy for your needs.

Frequently asked questions

What is a life insurance classification?

Life insurance classifications reflect your risk, i.e., the likelihood that you will die while your policy is active. Your rates depend on your classification.

What are the different life insurance health classifications?

From best to worst, the health classifications are: Preferred Plus, Preferred, Standard Plus, and Standard. Table ratings or Substandard classifications fall below Standard and are numbered or lettered from 1 to 10 or A to J.

How does your health class impact your premiums?

The better your classification, the lower your premiums will be. Preferred Plus and Preferred applicants pay less than Standard and Substandard applicants.

Can you still get life insurance with health issues?

You can get life insurance if you have a mild-to-moderate condition that is well-managed, though it depends on the specifics of your condition and your treatment plan.

Does COVID-19 affect the life insurance application process or eligibility?

Due to the ever-changing nature of the coronavirus pandemic, some insurers are modifying processes and/or imposing coverage restrictions on certain health conditions or age groups. Speak to a Policygenius agent to find out how to get the most affordable policy.