Life Insurance – Why Does the UK Have a 2.3 Pounds Trillion Protection Gap?

According to Swiss Re, one of the world’s largest re-insurance companies, less than half of the UK population has any form of life insurance protection. They then go on to put a figure on the value of this protection gap. Using an average income of £20,000 and assuming that the value of protection needed ranges between 5 and 10 times income, they put a value on the protection gap at £2.3 trillion.

But in all probability, whilst the gap is huge, £2.3 trillion is likely to be somewhat over stated. After all there are people who are disqualified from having life cover due to their age – just over 1 in 5 are under 18 years old, the minimum for life cover, and 1 in 6 are effectively uninsurable as they’re over 65. Then there’s a raft of persons for whom life insurance is just not necessary. These are people aged between 18 and 65 who do not have dependents. Having said that, without doubt, there are still many families in the Swiss Re survey that have been correctly identified as desperately needing life insurance.

So if they need life insurance, why do they hold back?

Undeniably there are still many people who have no understanding what life insurance provides and because they don’t think about it, they don’t care, and nothing ever gets done. After all life insurance isn’t a fun buy – there’s no enjoyable window-shopping or pleasure in owning it. The chances are that unless financial advisers sit down and talks to these, they’ll remain totally uninterested and uninsured.

Newspaper reporting given to the insurance industry also tends not to help. The Sunday papers in particular are regularly full of stories about one family or another that has had a claim turned down. These stories make the headlines, as behind them there’s invariably a poignant tale of personal tragedy and distress. It all gives the life industry a tarnished image and creates a feeling that they can’t be trusted. In practice, when you read the stories, the reason for the claim being refused often comes down to the fact that the policyholder missed off some relevant information from their application form. Nevertheless, some refusals are clearly wrong and this undoubtedly damaging.

Then there are those people who fully appreciate that they need life insurance but just can’t be bothered or say they can’t afford the premiums. More realistically, for many “can’t afford” actually means, “I choose not to afford”. They might be happy to spend £100 at the pub each month but are unwilling to cut back a little to pay the premium that protects their family’s future.

For sure, there is no disputing the fact that some life insurance applicants have found the final quote to be genuinely unaffordable. Whilst for the majority, cover at standard premiums is affordable, over the last seven years we’ve seen a huge rise in the number of people who have seen the proposed premium substantially increase once the insurer has looked at their application form. It’s a result of the life companies making it harder for people to meet the company’s definition of “healthy”. Seven years ago half as many applicants were seeing the price increased as a result of the insurance companies classifying them as an above average health risk.

Even a few years ago it was usually obvious who’d have difficulty getting insured at standard rates – people with heart or circulatory problems, former cancer suffers and diabetics for example. How the picture has now changed. Application forms are much more detailed and medical problems that were previously acceptable are now only acceptable with a higher premium. Take weight for example – these days insurers clamp down when they judge an applicant’s weight to be a risk to their longer-term health. And it’s not just the obviously obese that attract the insurer’s notice. Companies are now using the Body Mass Index to identify weight problems. This is your weight divided by the square of your height. Most life companies now want a BMI of no more than 29, whereas previously up to 40 was acceptable. This means that a woman weighing 83 kilos and 1.66 meter tall will now face a higher premium.

The application process can also be put some people off. Whilst about 30% of people will receive an immediate decision, for others the process can become one delay after another. As if a 14-page application were not enough, some people are being asked to complete more forms in addition to medical examinations. The whole process can take up to 9 weeks, sometimes even more, before the applicant finds out precisely how much their premium will be. If that premium works out more that they can afford, the applicant is often too tired of the whole process to start applying again to a new insurance company. The result is yet another family without life insurance.

Despite these problems, the life companies say that thanks to more sophisticated underwriting procedures, prices are lower today that they were a few years ago. The arrival of the Internet has also had a profound affect on prices. Around 10% of life insurance is bought online and discounting has become the norm. This too has helped more families to become insured.

However, in the author’s view it will take more than a decade to get people covered by life insurance above the 50% level.