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Not all life insurance policies are created equal. Your policy won’t necessarily be the same as your neighbor’s. That’s because life insurance companies use a system of classifications to determine someone’s health.
These classifications affect how much coverage you can get at each price point. If you’re healthy, you’ll get a more favorable classification and therefore have more affordable life insurance rates. If you’re not so healthy or have pre-existing medical conditions, your life insurance classification and rates will reflect that. Insurers distribute policies based on risk and the likelihood they will actually have to pay out, so they use health class to figure out which of their customers are more likely to die while the policy is in force.
Life insurance companies use roughly the same four classifications to determine how much you pay for your life insurance, or life insurance premiums. But each company varies slightly. For example, while it’s common to receive a less favorable classification for any type of tobacco use, some insurance companies may distinguish between tobacco products when determining your classification.
Life insurance classifications are used to determine how risky you are to insure
Your hobbies, health, and family history are used to determine your life insurance classification
How you're classified dictates the cost of your premiums
In general, four different classifications determine the cost of life insurance policies:
Some companies have different names for them, but these are the most widely used.
People who don’t fit into any other classifications may fall into a broader category, called Substandard , or Table ratings.
Finally, as mentioned, some companies will have categories exclusively for those who identify as smokers.
Sometimes called Preferred Elite, Super Preferred, or Preferred Select, this is the best classification you can get. You’re royalty in the eyes of an insurance company. You’re in excellent health, you have an ideal height-to-weight ratio, and your family history is as squeaky clean as your lifestyle.
Well done, you’re paying the lowest premium!
In this case, second place isn’t so bad. You won’t be getting the same rate as a Preferred Plus policyholder, but outside of a few minor factors, like high cholesterol or high blood pressure, you’re in very good health.
You’re still doing pretty well. You’re in good health, but you might have a few outliers to keep an eye on and you’re not in the ideal height/weight range. Your family history is good, so you shouldn’t have any surprises in your future.
You have a less ideal height/weight ratio, an average life expectancy or your medical exam came back with a few notes. The main difference between Standard and Standard Plus is that here, your family history plays a role, and your family members probably had medical issues before the age of 60. You will see higher life insurance premiums in this class, but you’re still able to get insured, which is the important part.
This isn’t a specific rating classification like the others; instead, based on your health and history, you’re placed in the Substandard category (also called a table rating system), which is graded by either letters or numbers (typically either A-J or 1-10). This is because you have a complicated health history, or you’ve had some recent problems, such as a heart attack or diabetes.
Your premium price will, on average, be the Standard price plus 25% for every step down the insurance 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 be paying as much as an extra 250% on your premiums, which isn’t ideal. But again, you can still get insured. If you have dependents who are counting on your income and need protection, you’ll still be able to help them in the event of your death.
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You probably knew that your health affected your premiums; after all, when you apply for life insurance, you have to go through a phone interview process and schedule a medical exam. To further determine your rates, insurance companies will also assign you a life insurance classification. This process is part of underwriting.
Insurance companies look at a wide range of health and lifestyle factors to figure out which classification you fall into. Each insurance company has its own criteria for determining the weight of each factor and how it affects your classification, which is why you’ll probably see different quotes from company to company.
Insurers allow some wiggle room for an underwriter to look at other criteria, called “stretch criteria,” when judging an applicant’s risk. This is done primarily to allow flexibility in assigning classifications and to remain competitive against other companies that might be willing to offer someone better premiums.
Here are some of the most common factors that go into determining one’s classification:
You’ll have to take a medical exam (also called a paramedical exam) and answer questions about your current health status. This includes any prescriptions you’re taking, any medical conditions you have, and how you’re treating those conditions. The insurance company might also request an attending physician’s statement (APS) from your doctor to learn more about your health history.
The insurance company will take a look at your height and weight to see where you fall within a certain range, using charts similar to a BMI (Body Mass Index) measurement. If you are considered underweight, overweight, or obese according to the CDC guidelines, your life insurance rates may be higher than if you meet their criteria for a healthy weight.
Insurance companies don’t just look at your current weight, but also your weight history. Losing weight can help you save money on your life insurance, but not if you’ve lost (or gained) 10 or more pounds within a year of your application. If that’s the case, you’ll only get credit for 50% of your weight change, largely because companies are wary of large fluctuations and want to see stability. This ensures that you didn’t lose weight just to get a better deal on your premium and are going to gain the weight back right after you’re approved.
They don’t mention it on the Surgeon General’s Warning, but smoking is bad for your life insurance premiums too. Regular smoking is a major knock, but occasional smoking (like a cigar now and then), chewing tobacco, and Juuling can also affect your premiums. Vaping is also judged strictly by insurance companies, with no major life insurers offering nonsmoker rates for vapers as of 2021.
How smoking affects your health classification:
Preferred Smoker – This is just what it sounds like: you’d probably fall into the Preferred classification if you didn’t smoke. This will usually cover occasional smokers or people who use smokeless tobacco.
Standard Smoker – You’d fall into one of the Standard classifications if it weren’t for those pesky cigarettes. If you want the premium savings, you’ll want 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 rates over time, ex-smokers will originally still see a hike in their premiums. The longer you don’t smoke, the more opportunity there is for your premium rates to decrease. Think of the extra cash in your pocket as motivation to give up smoking cigarettes.
While marijuana is now legal in multiple states, most major insurers still classify cannabis use with more than a hint of caution. Some life insurance companies may even give marijuana users the same rates as tobacco smokers regardless of legality, but there are insurance companies that also give marijuana users competitive rates.
During an initial evaluation, you will likely be asked to disclose if your family has been diagnosed with, treated for, or died from heart disease, kidney disease, cancer, or diabetes. That’s because family health history is a big factor in life insurance classification, albeit one that is completely out of your control. If your family has a history of illnesses, such as heart disease or diabetes, it’s a red flag. This will count against you, especially if there’s a history of death before the age of 60.
This is a catch-all category that includes how risky your lifestyle is, what you do for work, and what your hobbies are. If you’re a base jumper, a fan of flying single-engine planes, or a bear wrestler, your chance of premature death is a bit higher than someone who likes to curl up with a nice book on the couch. Unfortunately, that means you will have to pay a flat extra and your premiums will be higher. How much a flat extra will cost you varies by insurer, but you can expect to pay $2 to $5 per every $1000 you spend on coverage. That means you’ll be spending an extra $5,000 a year on a $1,000,000 life insurance policy.
A risky behavior classification could also include driving history, which involves pulling up your motor vehicle report. If you have DUIs or DWIs on your record, your premiums will be higher.
A misdemeanor here or there 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 a standard or substandard classification and high premiums.
The hows and whys behind life insurance classifications are helpful, but the real question is: How does this affect the price of your life insurance? Here’s how the numbers break down if you’re a 35-year-old male purchasing a 20-year term life insurance policy for $500,000 in coverage:
|Preferred Plus Non-Tobacco||$25.06|
|Standard Plus Non-Tobacco||$42.07|
|Standard Non-Tobacco, Table 2||$67.92|
|Standard Non-Tobacco, Table 3||$78.09|
|Standard Non-Tobacco, Table 4||$88.76|
|Preferred Plus / Preferred Tobacco||$94.55|
|Standard Plus / Standard Tobacco||$128.87|
|Standard Tobacco, Table 2||$190.13|
|Standard Tobacco, Table 3||$220.30|
|Standard Tobacco, Table 4||$251.50|
Methodology: Rates are calculated for males living in Columbus, Ohio, obtaining a 20-year, $500,000 term life insurance policy. Quotes are based on a composite of policies from AIG, Banner, Brighthouse, Lincoln, Mutual of Omaha, Pacific Life, Principal, Protective, Prudential, SBLI, and Transamerica and may vary by carrier, term, coverage amount, health class, and state. Not all policies are available in all states. Rate illustration valid as of 2/2/2021.
You can see how all those lifestyle choices reflect in the dollar breakdown.
Falling from the best classification to the worst would make your policy more than 10 times as expensive. And keep in mind that insurance table ratings can go down even further.
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Your life insurance classification is the final determinant of how much you’ll pay to protect your family. So how can you get the best life insurance rates?
As you saw above, smoking is a surefire way to pay more for life insurance. If you stop smoking, you at least give yourself a chance at affordable rates. In our example above, you'd save $5.79 a month – $1,389.60 over the life of a 20-year policy – just going from the best smoker class to the worst nonsmoker class.
Some of the health factors that affect your classification are out of your control – you can’t do much about your family health history – but there are some steps you can take before your medical exam to give you a leg up on the process:
Fast 6-8 hours before the exam
This ensures that your blood sugar and cholesterol numbers are accurate. Pro tip: Schedule a morning appointment so you won’t be hungry all day.
You’re drinking the recommended amount of water daily anyway, right? Make sure that you’re consuming ample water leading up to the exam; this helps to dilute your veins and makes them easier to find during your blood test.
Avoid intense workouts
A fitness regimen can be great for your life insurance premiums, but not so great for your life insurance examination. Take your rest day the day before your exam, as the spike in blood pressure from strenuous exercise can show up in your urine sample.
Before the exam, avoid alcohol, caffeine, over-the-counter medications (including herbal supplements), sugar, and tobacco. Let your medical examiner know if caffeine is an absolute must.
You’ll want to give up smoking at least a week in advance because blood work can show if you’ve smoked in the last seven days. Keep in mind that insurance companies look at the last 36 months to gauge your smoking habits.
Come prepared with your medical background
A life insurance exam involves a deep dive into your medical and family history. Bring written information about the doctors you see, health conditions in your family, and any surgeries or diagnoses you have had.
You’ll be weighed as a part of your examination, so you’ll want to wear lightweight clothes that won’t skew your actual weight and alter your life insurance classification.
Keep in mind that these tips can be helpful but the best way to earn a competitive classification is by consistently maintaining a healthy lifestyle.
Life insurance companies want to know that healthier living isn’t just a fluke, or that you’re not just trying to game the system for lower rates. When it comes to things like quitting smoking or losing weight, you usually have to show changes for a year or two before the insurer will give you lower rates.
Losing weight, lowering your cholesterol, and lowering your blood pressure can all help you get a better classification. Even if you have a chronic illness, that doesn’t guarantee a higher rate; for conditions like diabetes, you should be able to show that you’re managing the disease via medication history and other recommendations from your physician. Insurers view this favorably, and many will work with you if this is the case.
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 for free to find out how to get the most affordable policy.
Life insurance classifications determine the likelihood that you will die while your policy is active. Your rates depend on your classification.
From best to worst, the classifications are: Preferred Plus, Preferred, Standard Plus, and Standard. Table ratings are life insurance health classifications that fall below Standard, also referred to as Substandard ratings. In general, table ratings are numbered or lettered and range from 1/A (the best possible table rating) to 10/J (the worst).
To score a Preferred Plus or Preferred health classification, which will get you the best possible premium rates, you must have a clean family medical history, an ideal height/weight ratio, and good overall health. Serious or chronic health issues, a complicated family history, or being a smoker will knock down your classification and lead to costlier premiums.
Most likely, yes. It’s entirely possible to get life insurance for a competitive price if you have a mild-to-moderate condition that is well-managed, though it depends on the specifics of your health condition and your treatment plan.
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