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What are the commissions on a life insurance policy?

Updated on July 15, 2017

What are the commissions paid on life insurance?

How much commission does an insurance agent earn when they sell a life insurance policy?

The commissions paid on cash value life insurance vary from policy to policy. There are commissions in the first year that can range from 8% of the total premium all the way to 120%. There are also renewal commissions paid on future premium payments that can be anywhere from 2% to 15%.

Here is a general break down of the commissions paid to a life insurance agent for the various types of life insurance policies:

  1. Modified Endowment Contract (MEC) - A MEC is a type of life insurance contract where the policy owner will re-position a large amount of cash with the insurance company for a future benefit. The word "endow" means to provide with a permanent source of assets. Therefore, an individual that establishes a MEC is endowing the policy with a permanent source of capital to ensure the desired death benefit in the future. The commissions paid on this form of life insurance contract can be as low as 8% of the premium. There are tax implication for borrowing or withdrawing money from this type of life insurance policy that an agent would need to explains.However, per dollar of premium, a MEC is typically the lowest commissioned life insurance product.
  2. Whole Life Insurance - The commissions paid on the sale of whole life is anywhere from 55-100% of the premium. A policy that has this type of commission structure typically is not designed primarily as a cash accumulation vehicle. Instead, it is designed to provide the most amount of permanent life insurance death benefit with the least amount of premium. Over time, there will be cash value in a whole life insurance contract and the policy owner can withdraw or borrow against the policy.
  3. Whole Life "Paid-Up Additions" (PUA) - A PUA is additional premium the owner of a whole life insurance policy can make to increase the cash value of it faster. The PUAs can be added to the original policy design or they may be additions to participating whole life contracts who pay policy owners dividends. The commissions of PUAs is 3-5% of the premium. Some companies only pay commissions on the PUAs of planned premiums and not on the additional contribution made to the policy as a result of the dividends. For whole life policies that are being taken out which have the goal of first accumulating cash value, PUAs can be added to the policy up to a limit before the policy becomes a MEC. this will reduce the total commission of the policy both in the first year and in renewals but it will reduce the initial life insurance death benefit.
  4. Universal Life Target Commissions - The commissions on what is known as the "target premium" of universal life insurance is anywhere from 80-120% of the first year premiums. Target premiums are typically the minimum amount of premium needed to ensure that the life insurance policy will have the desired death benefit in the future.
  5. Universal Life Excess Premium Commissions - Like whole life's PUAs, universal life insurance policy owners can contribute additional premiums to the policy in order to increase cash value faster. These additional premiums will earn the agent selling the policy 3-4% of additional compensation.
  6. Universal Life Renewal Commissions - The renewal commissions of universal life are 3-4% of the amount contributed to the policy each year.
  7. Term Life Insurance Commissions - The commissions on various term life insurance policies are anywhere from 80% to 150% of the first years premium. Almost all term life insurance policies do not have renewal commissions associated with them anymore. Term life insurance provides the maximum amount of death benefit for a certain period (term) of time however, they do not have cash value. (Note: Just because term life insurance doesn't have a cash value does not mean they have no value while they are in force. The IRS does assign a value to the premiums paid toward a term policy that is important to understand is various estate planning and retirement planning situation.)

These are the typical commissions for cash value life insurance policies. For the investor with a short term time horizon or for the investor who wants to maintain flexibility with all their investment capital in order to be able to jump in and out of various investment schemes with all their money, cash value life insurance doesn't make sense as an investment at all. The commissions paid to the agent in the early years of the policy do consume a large portion of their equity that will take years to recapture.

If they need life insurance, they will be better served to "buy term and invest the rest."

All fee-based financial planners and financial advisors recommend that investors create short term (under 5 years) Medium term (5-15 years) and long term (over 15 years) investment strategies.

Knowing cash value life insurance is not an appropriate for short term investment strategy, let's look at the how the commissions paid to agents impacts the long term performance of the equity inside a cash value policy as compared to a like alternative.

Figure A: Cash Value "Hook"

The Accumulation of Cash Value Life Insurance forms "a hook."
The Accumulation of Cash Value Life Insurance forms "a hook."

The cash value life insurance "hook"

Since the design of cash value life insurance has a large percentage of the first years premium going to the commission of the life insurance agent selling the policy. Therefore the investment return is negative in the first few years and generally increase over time as more premiums are paid. This forms a "hook" which I have illustrated in Figure A.

In the first year of this policy, the rate of return on this 10-pay whole life is illustrated to be approximately negative 90%! This validates the fact that cash value life insurance should not be used to fund goals with a short term time frame. The loss of the policy's first year's premium is also used by opponents of the product to suggest that the product should be avoided all together.

However, as you can see from the hook, after the first year commissions are paid, the return in the cash value of the policy accelerates to make up for these losses as the policy stays in force. The rate of return on the cash flow into the policy increases so that these early losses are recaptured and the internal rate of return of the policy resembles that of a traditional fixed income portfolio made up of securities paying the current markets interest rate.

In the 10-year whole life policy illustrated in Figure A, the policy breaks even in 8th year and eventually reaches an illustrated compounded annual return of 4% by year 20 of the policy (peaking at 4.6% by year 30). This projected rates of return is after all fees associated with providing the policy owner with a life insurance death benefit of $255,641. You can view this illustration with it's corresponding illustrated internal rate of return by clicking here.

The rate of return in the illustration is based on the assumed dividend of the policy. Life insurance dividends are not guaranteed. They are based on the excess premium the company recieved to provide contracted benefits to their polilcy owners. When a life insurance company takes in more premium than was needed, they have a surplus (ie - make a profit) and return those surpluses to the policy owners. For information on what affects dividend returns of a whole life policy click here.

Premium vs. Cash Value increase in 10-Pay Whole Life Policy.
Premium vs. Cash Value increase in 10-Pay Whole Life Policy.

Does Life Insurance Have a Good Rate of Return?

In 2017, a whole life insurance illustration on a healthy non-smoker will illustrate an internal rate of return somewhere between 3-5.6%.

Opponents of cash value life insurance such as fee-based advisors who impose what I call "on-going commissions" against their clients portfolios are quick to point out that the 30-year return of the stock market (as measured by the S&P 500 between 1987-2016) was around11%.

Assuming that the stock market will average the same rate of return over the next 30 years as it did between 1987-2016, the same $10,000 premium for 10 years allocated to stocks would grow to $1.4 Million Dollars (versus $470,744 in the whole life contract.)

This is a difference of almost $1,000,000! BUT.......

Fee-based investment advisors tend to move their clients out of the stock market as they get older and into fixed income investments like bonds which are exactly what life insurance company invests in for their policies returns.

The reason investment advisors move their clients out of stocks and into bonds as they near retirement is because stocks tend to be much more volatile than fixed income. An investor closer to retirement can not afford to experience that "roller coaster" feeling or the potential heavy investment losses stocks can experience.

In the period between 1984 to 2012, bonds have had a tremendous bull market. Interest rates have fallen during this time allowing those who invested directly into bonds to experience significant appreciation from their holdings. The problem for investors who are allocated into bonds today is that they could experience a loss of principle if interest rates increase.

By planning on using the cash value of a life insurance portfolio to reduce the overall volatility ones portfolio as they near retirement eliminates the potential for principle as insurance contracts have minimal guaranteed rates of return no investment has.

Table 1 shows the historical returns of Stocks, bonds, whole life insurance and a mixture of stocks and bonds without the burden of fees.

Table 1 - Performance of Various Assets between 1984-2013

30 Year Average
Best Year (return)
Worst Year (return)
$100,000 Over 30 Years Became?
Whole Life
1985,1986 (10.75%)
2013 (3.75%)
Barclay Bond Index
1985 (22.13%)
1994 (-2.97%)
S&P 500 (w/dividends)
1995 (38.02%)
2008 (-37.22%)
50% Stocks and Bonds
1995 (22.02%)
2009 (-19.03%)
Whole Life based on Guardian Life Insurance Company Dividend Payout less a reduction of 2.5% for Cost of Insurance. Rates of Return for Stocks, Bonds and 50/50 Allocation assume no fees or taxes. Past Performance does not guarantee future results.

The Commissions of Cash Value Life Insurance and Their Effect the Long Term Gains of the Policy

Table 1 also shows the historical long-term gains of whole life insurance. Though the performance of this asset class has been lower than owning bonds directly from 1984-2013, bond holders have experienced an appreciation in their bond investments as interest rates have decreased during this period. If and when interest rates do rise, those investing directly in bonds can expect to experience losses in their portfolios instead. These gains and losses are a result of what is know as an inverse correlation between interest rates and bond prices.

The commissions paid to agents who sell cash value life insurance do reduce the equity in the policy. However, cash value life insurance has performed in line with the yield of a diversified bond portfolio yield while also providing the benefits only a life insurance policy can.

Cash value life insurance is the only asset class that did not lose money due to investment losses in Table 1. As a matter of fact, cash value life insurance is the only asset class other than holding cash directly that is contractually guaranteed not to have a loss of principle because of investment losses. Each policy has a minimum guaranteed rate of return.

The important questions to ask are: How can an investor use this product to their advantage? How can an investor with a long term time frame use cash value life insurance and overcome the lower return associated with owning it compared to investing in stocks? How can investors do this in a simple fashion so they don't need to rely on fee based planners or pay the ongoing commissions they levy on that portion of their investment portfolio?

Nobody "needs" cash value life insurance. However, when a product can help them accomplish more with their money than any other alternative, people will want to buy it.

The perceived low "investment returns" of cash value life insurance isn't a reason to avoid the product.

The Benefits of Cash Value Life Insurance


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      Jeremy Roof 12 months ago

      Whole life insurance is just sold by salesman looking to make money. Whole life is expensive. If you need life insurance, you are better off buying term life insurance. I bought 3,000,000 term policy for about $200 a month. The same whole life policy would have cost me $3,000 a month! That is crazy!