Patrick Hanzel, CFP®
Updated June 7, 2021|9 min read
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Not all life insurance policies are created equal, which is why your policy won’t necessarily be the same as your neighbor’s. That’s because life insurance companies use a system of health classifications to categorize applicants.
These classifications affect how much you’ll pay for coverage. If you present fewer risk factors—like complex health conditions, risky habits, or dangerous hobbies— you’ll get a more favorable classification and have more affordable life insurance rates than someone who does raise some flags.
Life insurance companies use roughly the same four classifications to determine your life insurance premiums. But each company varies slightly in how they assign those classifications. For example, while it’s common to receive a less favorable classification for any type of tobacco use, some insurance companies may give an infrequent cigar smoker a better classification than a casual cigarette smoker.
Life insurance classifications are an indicator of how risky you are to insure
Your hobbies, health, and family history are used to determine your life insurance classification
The classifications are Preferred Plus, Preferred, Standard Plus, Standard, and Substandard
How you're classified dictates the cost of your premiums, with Preferred Plus offering the best rates
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.
Most companies have a version of these categories exclusively for smokers.
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Sometimes called Preferred Elite, Super Preferred, or Preferred Select, this is the best classification you can get. 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 your height-to-weight ratio doesn’t fall into the insurer’s range for Preferred classifications. 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 flags. The main 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.
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 health issues, such as a heart attack or diabetes.
Your premium will, on average, be the Standard price plus 25% for every level 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 pay an extra 250% on your premiums at a Table J/Table 10 health classification, 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 provide for them in the event of your death.
Insurers distribute policies based on risk and the likelihood of paying out, so they use health class to figure out which of their customers are more likely to die while the policy is in force. Insurance companies look at a wide range of health and lifestyle factors during underwriting to figure out which classification you fall into, including:
Height and weight
Drug or alcohol use
Family health history
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 primarily allows for flexibility in assigning classifications and helps providers remain competitive against other companies that might be willing to offer someone better premiums.
Here’s more on the most common factors that go into determining your classification:
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.
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 don’t just look at your current weight, but also your weight history. Losing weight can help you save money on your life insurance premiums, but you’ll only get credit for 50% of your weight change if you’ve lost or gained 10 or more pounds within a year of your application.
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 aren’t going to gain the weight back right after you’re approved.
Regular smoking will significantly raise your rates; smokers pay up to three times more for life insurance than non-smokers. But occasional smoking and chewing tobacco can also affect your premiums. Vaping is also judged strictly by insurance companies, with no major life insurers offering non-smoker rates for vapers as of 2021.
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 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 over time, ex-smokers will still see an initial hike in their premiums. The longer you don’t smoke, the more opportunity there is for your premiums to decrease.
While marijuana is now legal in multiple states, only some major insurers offer non-smoker classifications to cannabis users. Other life insurance companies give marijuana users the same rates as tobacco smokers regardless of local laws.
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:
Family health history is a big factor in life insurance classification, particularly for 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.
This is a catch-all category that evaluates how risky your lifestyle is based on details like:
If you’re a base jumper or a fan of flying single-engine planes, your chance of premature death is a bit 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.
How much a flat extra costs varies by insurer, but you can expect to pay $2 to $5 for every $1,000 of coverage you have. That means you’ll spend an extra $5,000 a year on a $1,000,000 life insurance policy.
If you have DWIs on your record within the last five years, your application could be declined or postponed. If you have more than two moving violations on your record, your premiums will be higher, but you will still qualify for coverage.
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.
Understanding what impacts your life insurance classification is helpful, but the real question is: How does this affect the price of your policy? Here’s how the numbers break down for a 35-year-old male purchasing a 20-year term life insurance policy with $500,000 in coverage:
|Preferred Plus Non-Tobacco||$23.43|
|Standard Plus Non-Tobacco||$39.73|
|Standard Non-Tobacco, Table 2||$64.16|
|Standard Non-Tobacco, Table 3||$73.66|
|Standard Non-Tobacco, Table 4||$83.72|
|Standard Tobacco, Table 2||$191.48|
|Standard Tobacco, Table 3||$221.77|
|Standard Tobacco, Table 4||$253.28|
You can see how all those risk factors reflect in the dollar breakdown. Falling from the most affordable to the least affordable health classification would make your policy more than four times as expensive for non-smokers and two and a half times as expensive for smokers. And keep in mind that insurance table ratings can go down even further than Table 4.
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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?
If you stop smoking, you can give yourself a chance at affordable rates. In our example above, you'd save $14.94 a month—$3,585.60 over the life of a 20-year policy—just by going from the best smoker class to the worst non-smoker 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—and you won’t benefit from unhealthy shortcuts like crash dieting. But, there are some steps you can take before your medical exam to give you a leg up:
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.
Stay hydrated: 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: 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.
Detox: 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.
Quit smoking: Insurance companies look at the past three to five years to gauge your smoking habits, so you should plan to quit as soon as possible.
Come prepared with your medical background: You’ll be asked questions about 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.
Dress lightly: 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. Consider wearing short sleeves to allow easy access for bloodwork.
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. If you’re quitting smoking or losing weight, you usually have to show changes for a year or two before the insurer will lower your premiums.
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 history 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.
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.
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.
From best to worst, the health classifications are: Preferred Plus, Preferred, Standard Plus, and Standard. Table ratings or Substandard ratings are classifications that fall below Standard. In general, table ratings are numbered or lettered and range from 1/A (best) to 10/J (worst).
The better your classification, the lower your premiums will be. Preferred Plus and Preferred applicants pay the least, while Standard and Substandard applicants pay the most.
You can 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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