The hidden factors that determine your life insurance rate

Age, gender, and desired amount of coverage are the factors that matter most in policy cost. But these elements are only the tip of the pricing iceberg.

Arnulfo Franco/AP
This May 28, 2013 photo shows a retired couple bicycling in Valle Escondido, a residential community in Boquete, west of Panama City.

By Jason Fisher

Learn more about Jason on NerdWallet’s Ask an Advisor.

As a life insurance agent, my job is to get my clients the coverage they need at the most affordable price possible.

This is more complicated than you might expect.

I tell clients their age, gender and desired amount of coverage are the factors that matter most in policy cost. This is true, but these elements are only the tip of the pricing iceberg.

Here’s a deeper dive into the factors that determine your life insurance rates.

The initial factors

The price you pay for life insurance is a direct reflection of the risk you pose to your insurer. The more risk you pose, the more you pay, and the less risk you pose, the less you pay.

When I’m developing a quote for a client, I ask about the five most important things first:

• Age.
• Gender.
• Coverage amount.
• Coverage type.
• Tobacco use.

Age and gender are the primary pricing factors. With the help of actuarial statistics, these determine your life expectancy.

The death benefit you need is the next greatest factor. If you need $25,000 in coverage, you’ll pay a much different premium than someone who needs more than $1,000,000.

All things being equal, younger folks pay less than seniors, females pay less than males, and those who need lower amounts of coverage pay less than those who need more.

I also need to know if my clients use tobacco products of any kind, and how often. Smokers have lower life expectancies and therefore pay higher premiums.

Lastly, the type of coverage you require, and for how long, impacts your premiums. Short-duration term life insurance is the cheapest option, and permanent life insurance is the most expensive.

Once I have a client’s age, gender, tobacco use, product type and the death benefit amount, I can offer a preliminary quote. However, it likely wouldn’t be accurate.

More factors, more questions

To further determine the level of risk my clients pose and get the most accurate initial quotes possible, I need to ask a lot more questions.

The next bundle pertain to:

• Family history.
• Criminal record.
• Driving record.
• Occupation and activities.

Your family’s history of certain diseases — such as diabetes, cancer or cardiovascular issues — can directly affect your ability to get the lowest rates. Fortunately, you need to worry only about your immediate family. Distant relatives don’t count.

A criminal record can also have a big impact on rates — and even get a person declined. Of course, insurance companies overlook small infractions. It’s big ones, such as felonies, that make for tough cases.

The same goes for your driving report. A speeding ticket here and there isn’t a big deal, but a DUI will definitely make for a bumpy application process.

Don’t think your job has anything to do with life insurance risk? There are a select few who do need to consider the impact of working a dangerous occupation, such as logging workers or commercial fishers.

If your job doesn’t increase your premiums, your hobby might. If you scuba dive or sky dive, for example, you could also pay noticeably higher premiums.

Build, prescriptions and overall health

The rest of the questions are health-related, and this is when the vast majority of applicants see their premiums rise.

The first one, regarding your body mass index or height-to-weight ratio, could very well disqualify you from the best rates. Every life insurance company has a specific set of heights and weights that’s acceptable for each range of ratings. Companies usually have separate charts for males and females.

Almost all insurers require a prescription check. When you sign your application, you authorize the insurance company to run a report of your medications.

In the last step before I can provide a realistic quote, I need to know everything about your health, including whether you have mild anxiety, diabetes or sleep apnea due to obesity. Lots of applicants get tripped up here simply because they forget. Insurance companies commonly want to know about your health during the last 10 years. That’s a long time.

The final step

Almost done. At this point, I’ve given my clients their expected rate, but it’s not guaranteed. Once we’ve submitted the application, a few more factors can impact premiums.

Many insurers require a physical exam. This includes a blood test, blood pressure measurement, height and weight verification, and potentially more.

Unfortunately, I sometimes have to tell a client that something came up during this process. It’s not unusual to learn that you have high cholesterol, high blood pressure, or elevated liver enzymes, but it can be much worse.

And even if everything up to this point was perfect, your rate could still increase.

Your insurance company might access your medical records to verify your health or pre-existing medical conditions. Anything your primary care physician has noted about you could either help you earn discounts or increase your rates.

Only after the company’s underwriters have taken everything above into consideration will you know your actual premium. As you can see, there are a lot of variables.

When you’re applying for life insurance and it seems like your agent is grilling you, remember: That’s a good agent. He or she is trying to be thorough and accurate. You’ll be happy when you’re approved or even receive a discounted rate, instead of a new one much higher than you were expecting.

Jason Fisher is a licensed life insurance agent and founder of

This story originally appeared on NerdWallet.

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