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What does a life insurance agent do?

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Agents and brokers work with insurance companies to help potential customers navigate the process of buying life insurance.

Jennifer PanRebecca Shoenthal author photo

Jennifer Pan & Rebecca Shoenthal

Published September 10, 2020

KEY TAKEAWAYS

  • If you’re shopping for life insurance, an independent agent or broker can help you understand your options

  • Each state’s department of insurance sets insurance commission rates, so while agents earn commission on the policies they sell, there’s no extra cost to the consumer

  • Do your own research and compare quotes before meeting with an agent to make sure you’re not sold a policy that offers more (or less) coverage than you need

When you buy life insurance, you may find it useful to enlist a life insurance agent or broker to help you. Agents work with life insurance companies to help potential customers navigate the process of buying a life insurance policy. While you can shop around for life insurance on your own, using a professional who knows the ins and outs of life insurance, such as an agent, can save you time and money.

IN THIS ARTICLE

What is a life insurance agent?

A life insurance agent is a licensed professional who sells insurance policies to consumers on behalf of one or more insurance companies. To get a license in their state, an agent must take an accredited course and pass a life insurance agent exam.

If you’re shopping for life insurance, an agent can help you understand your options – from what type of policy is best for you to who you should name as a beneficiary. It’s the agent’s job to try to sell you a policy, but they should also have a good grasp of what kinds of policies are available and which would be a good fit for your financial situation and your lifestyle. That includes making sure you’re not buying more coverage than you need.

Agents should know a company’s policies inside and out and should be able to answer any questions you have about buying life insurance coverage, like:

In addition to buying the right type of life insurance, you’ll want to find an insurer that offers you the best rate. Insurers will charge you a higher premium if your medical history, age or hobbies indicate that you pose a higher risk. An independent agent could help you figure out which insurer penalizes certain health conditions or lifestyle choices more than others.

Depending on your health needs, some life insurance companies are a better fit than others. For example, if you have diabetes, high blood pressure or you smoke, certain companies may offer you more competitive rates than others for the same condition. Check out our definitive breakdown of the best life insurance companies to get a sense of what’s out there before meeting with an agent.

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Life insurance brokers vs agents

Life insurance brokers are similar to life insurance agents. Both brokers and agents serve as intermediaries between the insurance companies and customers. Both brokers and agents must be licensed to sell insurance. Although they both work with insurance companies to help shoppers find the right policy, agents are often more limited in the number of companies they work with while brokers aren’t beholden to any single insurer.

“Though agents may be able to offer products from companies other than the one they work for, they are usually incentivized to sell policies only from the insurer that employs them,” adds Policygenius agent Jake Herskovits. Without the incentive from any single insurance company, an independent broker is often better suited to provide unbiased advice that puts your best interests first.

An agent who works directly for one insurance company is called a captive agent. Captive agents are more likely to recommend a policy offered by their parent company.

Brokers (also referred to as noncaptive agents or independent agents) work with a large number of insurance companies and can help you compare policies from each. They may also sell additional insurance products, like disability insurance, homeowners insurance and auto insurance.

If you're looking for details about a specific insurance company's products, one of their agents may be the best person to talk to. However, if you're trying to comparison shop across multiple insurers, you’re better off contacting a broker who can help you evaluate policies from several different companies.

How do life insurance agents make money?

In most cases, life insurance agents won’t charge you anything if you work with them to buy life insurance. So how do they get paid?

State-regulated commissions

Most agents earn a percentage of the premiums on life insurance policies they sell—a commission—rather than a set salary. That commission, however, doesn’t come at an extra cost to you because it’s already built into the premium.

Insurance prices are regulated by each state’s department of insurance. Each insurance company develops rate tables and then files those rate tables with the state’s insurance department. Because these rates are set beforehand, an agent can’t offer you one company’s policy at a different rate than you’d get by simply going to the company itself. These pre-set commission rates are another reason why comparison shopping is so important when shopping for life insurance to secure the lowest price.

Some agents may charge you a fee for their service instead of earning a commission, but these fee-only agents are rare.

Pros of using an agent to buy life insurance

Buying insurance on your own can be confusing. Even just researching your options is often a challenge: Different resources might have conflicting or inaccurate information, especially as federal and state insurance laws change each year.

It’s an agent’s job to help you navigate all the nuances of life insurance and guide you through the process of buying a policy. While you can compare and apply for life insurance entirely on your own, sometimes that means a lot of waiting for a response from an insurer before you know where you stand in the application process. An agent can update you as your application advances with the insurance company and handle the back and forth so you don’t have to.

It’s also useful for someone to have all your information on file in case your application gets declined, which could happen if you fail to disclose medical conditions or if a company deems you too risky to be covered. If you make improvements to your health and lifestyle, the agent can automatically submit your application again when you’re ready. Agents who can offer you multiple types of insurance, such as disability insurance, may even be able to reuse your information across applications if you need more coverage.

Cons of using an agent to buy life insurance

A good life insurance agent will know which policies best suit your individual situation and steer you toward the best option. But relying solely on an agent’s expertise also means you’re at a disadvantage if they mislead you about how much or what type of coverage you need.

A life insurance agent is essentially a salesperson. If you don’t buy a policy, they don’t get paid. And because of the way commission works, the more expensive a policy you buy, the more the agent gets paid. You could be roped into a life insurance policy that offers way more coverage than you need, with premiums much higher than you’d pay for the appropriate amount of coverage. Before working with an agent, it’s a good idea to make sure they’re licensed in your state, and to read any reviews they might have.

Not sure how much life insurance you might need? Our life insurance calculator will give you a tailored recommendation. We can also help you compare quotes from multiple insurers.

Come armed with that info when you’re ready to meet an agent, and you won’t need to accept the first offer. Or simplify the process even more and use Policygenius to sort through available life insurance options and apply online.

Life insurance agent FAQ

What’s the difference between an agent and a broker?

Captive agents work for one specific insurance company, while non captive agents – also called independent agents – and independent brokers do not represent any single company.

How does a life insurance agent make money?

Most agents are commissions-based, so they earn a percentage of the premiums on life insurance policies they sell. But particular to the insurance industry, each state’s life insurance department regulates rates. So commissions are already included in the price you pay, regardless of which agent or company you use.

Do you have to use an agent or broker to buy life insurance?

No, you can apply for insurance on your own directly through insurance companies. But a licensed broker or agent can help you compare rates, explore options and can handle the back and forth while your application undergoes the underwriting process.

About the authors

Insurance Expert

Jennifer Pan

Insurance Expert

Jennifer Pan is an insurance editor at Policygenius. She covers life insurance, personal finance, and the economy. She previously worked in marketing and communications in the nonprofit sector and publishing.

Insurance Expert

Rebecca Shoenthal

Insurance Expert

Rebecca Shoenthal is an insurance editor at Policygenius in New York City. Previously, she worked as a nonfiction book editor. She has a B.A. in Media and Journalism from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Policygenius’ editorial content is not written by an insurance agent. It’s intended for informational purposes and should not be considered legal or financial advice. Consult a professional to learn what financial products are right for you.

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