Credit insurance is one of the most misunderstood and fraudulently marketed products in the field of personal finance. The types of insurance sold by creditors to debtors range from the old standard credit life and accident and sickness insurance to such worthless contracts as “life events” which will be explained below. Almost all of these policies are grossly overpriced and are a source of substantial profits for lenders and sales finance companies.
The use of insurance as a type of security for a loan or other extension of credit is not an inherently a bad choice. Both the creditor and the debtor can benefit from removing the risk of death or disability from the equation. If the reduced risk is a factor in providing a lower interest rate, or in basic credit approval, it can be a win-win situation. The problem arises, however, when the creditor intimidates or otherwise induces a customer to purchase an insurance product not for its effect on risk but as an additional and substantial source of revenue.
Normally insurance rates are set by the competitive market, which tends to hold rates down at least for the reasonably informed consumer who does some comparison shopping. Automobile insurance companies, for example, are highly competitive and the rates are seldom regulated. But in the context of an application for credit there may be no competition at the point of sale of the insurance. The creditor may be the only practicable source. The only “competition” is between insurance companies to see who can charge the highest premium and pay the highest commission to the creditor or its officers for selling the coverage. This tends to force rates up rather than down and has been dubbed “reverse competition”.
During the 1950s as consumer credit was expanding rapidly and many states had strict usury laws (laws limiting maximum finance charge rates) both lenders and sellers began relying on commissions from credit insurance premiums to pad the bottom line profits. Many engaged in selling excessive coverage (not needed to pay the debt if something happened to the debtor) and nearly all charged outrageous premiums, with 50% or more being paid to the creditor or its employees, officers or directors as “commissions” for writing the coverage. As incentives for paying as few claims as possible there were also “experience refunds” awarded to creditors, which sometimes raised the total compensation to 70% or more of the premiums. In addition, the premium was added to the loan or unpaid balance of the sale price and finance charges were charged on the premium.
Finally the National Association of Insurance Commissioners (NAIC) declared it had had enough of the consumer abuse and model legislation was drawn up and passed in nearly every state authorizing insurance commissioners to limit the amount and cost of credit life and accident and sickness insurance…the two biggest sellers in the field. In some jurisdictions the legislation had very little effect because the commissioners would not seriously exercise their new regulatory powers, but in others the rates came down almost immediately. Over a number of years where there was pressure from consumer groups the rates on these two products reached a reasonable level…with some states requiring that the rates produce a 50 or 60 per cent “loss ratio”….ratio of incurred claims to earned premiums….and limiting commission payments to creditors.
While this progress helped the consumer buying credit life and accident and sickness insurance creditors soon realized that it was easy to develop new products which were not regulated under the NAIC model law…products such as “involuntary unemployment insurance” to protect the consumer against job loss and “unpaid family leave” insurance to make payments in the event of a family emergency that required the debtor to have to leave his job temporarily.
Now, back to the question of whether you should purchase credit related insurance in connection with your next transaction, that really depends on the type of transactions, your individual circumstances and the kind of coverage in question. The first question to answer before deciding who to buy credit life insurance from is whether you need life insurance at all. The first step in the answer is “Do I already have life insurance in sufficient amount to cover this obligation and other needs?” If so it is obvious you don’t need any more, and the answer should be “No”.
Life insurance is justified when (a) there are dependents to be cared for after you are gone; (b) you have a moral obligation to a co-signer or co-maker or guarantor…possibly a family member…that you will pay at least your portion of an obligation, living or dead; (c) you own property or other assets which you want to leave to someone upon your demise, and unless this debt is otherwise paid the property may have to be sold to pay it; (d) you are buying something important “on time”, such as a home or an expensive vehicle, and don’t want it to be foreclosed or repossessed if you are not there to make the payments; or (e) you and a partner have invested heavily in a business that depends on both of you working, and you don’t want your partner to suffer a hardship if you are not there. There may be other reasons, but the point is that you must examine your individual circumstances.
You do NOT need life insurance if you have no dependents, own very little and are not leaving anything to anyone, and there is no co-maker to protect, because your debts essentially die with you. No one will have to pay them if you don’t. And if there is no money to bury or cremate your remains don’t worry. Something will be done with them because public health requires it. If you want an expensive send-off buy just enough to pay for the funeral and name a beneficiary with instructions to use it for that purpose so your creditors won’t try to grab it.
If you want to make gifts to others when you die, perhaps to make up for the mistreatment of them while you were around, life insurance is a very expensive “estate substitute”. It is better to put your money into savings than to pay it to some national insurance corporation on the hope that you will profit by dying. With life insurance you are essentially betting that you will die and the insurer is betting you won’t.
Assuming you decide you need life insurance, the next question is whether to buy it from a creditor or on the open competitive market. Most of the time it is best to purchase a proper amount of term life insurance payable either to a beneficiary, or to a trust for the benefit of minor dependents, or to your estate to be used to pay your last rites and obligations. If you have it paid to a beneficiary, such as your spouse or children, your creditors cannot claim it for the payment of your bills….unless you designate a particular creditor as a beneficiary to the extent of your debt obligation. No creditor has an insurable interest in your life except to the extent of your debt.
If you owe a mortgage debt on your home it may be wise to scale your term life policy to approximate the amount of your mortgage so it will be paid off for the benefit of your spouse and children if you, a provider, cannot provide. If you have a car note you need to adjust your total life insurance amount to discharge that obligation as well, so that whoever gets the car gets it free and clear. If you don’t care what happens to the vehicle don’t worry about the additional coverage. The creditor will take it and sell it and eat the balance. It is theoretically possible for a sales finance creditor to sue an estate for a deficiency after repossession but it very seldom occurs. It’s just too much trouble.
Aside from large obligations such as home mortgages and car notes there is usually very little justification for buying life insurance, and certainly not from a creditor. The premium rates on creditor-provided life insurance are much higher, as a general rule, than the rates for other life coverage.
Credit life insurance comes in three varieties…level, decreasing, and revolving. Level life insurance begins and ends with the same coverage over the term and is normally associated with single payment obligations. It is illegal in most states to sell level life insurance on installment transactions. Decreasing credit life comes in two sub-varieties…gross and net. Gross decreasing credit life begins with the “total of payments” (the principal plus all interest you will probably have to pay over the whole term of debt) and decreases by one monthly payment each month until it reaches zero at the end of the term. Net decreasing credit life starts at the “amount financed” and declines as the principal balance declines over the term. Usually net decreasing life is enough to pay the obligation because it tracks the remaining principal, unless you fail to keep up with the payment schedule and reduce the debt accordingly. Gross decreasing life will normally be excessive at the beginning and less so as the term continues. For example, if the principal is $10,000 and there will be $4000 in finance charges on a car note over a six-year term, the insurance will start at $14,000, but during the first month the debtor in fact only owes $10,000 plus a few days interest. This means that if the debtor dies during the term the excess coverage should be paid either to the debtor’s estate or to a named beneficiary. In some states creditors are limited to net decreasing life plus three or four months of payments just in case the account is in arrears at the time of death.
Auto accident deaths create a unique insurance situation where credit life is involved because the casualty insurance on the vehicle will often pay off the car note leaving the credit life insurance to be paid directly to the debtor’s estate as a cash benefit. Millions of dollars of insurance benefits have been lost because the surviving spouse was unaware of the double coverage on the note.
“Revolving account” credit life insurance usually involves a monthly premium computed on the basis of the outstanding balance being billed. The premium covers that amount for 30 days, discharging the obligation if death occurs before the next billing date.
Unfortunately, national banks that issue credit cards have developed a scam to get around the accusation of illegally high credit life premiums. Most of them if pressed would take the position that since they are a “national” bank the states cannot limit their insurance premiums, even if the state also limits premiums charged by state banks, but this legal position stands on shaky ground.
Many have issued their own policies in the form of “debt cancellation clauses” which are amendments to credit card agreements under which the account balance will be canceled if the debtor dies. But because of the risk that some state may clamp down on their rate-setting practices they “bundle” the credit life with up to a dozen other coverages, nearly all of which are not rate-regulated, so the charges produce a very large margin of profit. They won’t sell credit life alone, but require an “all or none” purchase of the various components such as credit accident and sickness, involuntary unemployment coverage, unpaid family leave coverage and even such weird products as “college graduation”, “having a baby”, “retirement”, “divorce” and other “life events”, each of which results in a month or two of benefits at the minimum payment level on the account. These bundled products usually cost upward of $1.00 per $100 per month, or twelve per cent per annum on top of the existing finance charge rate. Truth in Lending does not require that additional 12% to be reflected in the annual percentage rate, however, because the coverage is deemed “voluntary” and not part of the “finance charge”.
So the answer to the initial question is a resounding “maybe”…depending on your individual circumstances, the options available to you, and the cost of each alternative. Perhaps having read this you will know what questions to ask and make an informed choice.
Sidney L. Moore Jr. is a retired consumer credit attorney who has handled many thousands of consumer defenses and claims against creditors. He holds a Master of Laws degree and was in practice for more than 40 years. He now specializes in consumer class actions against credit-granting institutions. His cases have resulted in millions of dollars being paid to non-profit organizations by creditors, in addition to millions in refunds to customers. He is a member of the National Association of Consumer Advocates (NACA) and a frequent lecturer on consumer credit issues in lawyer-training events. He may be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.