The Securities and Exchange Commission's Office of Investor Education and Adovacy has issued an investor bulletin on life settlements that details the intricacies of these products, as well as the risks they pose to investors. The contents of the bulletin can be found below, as well as on the SEC website.
What is a life settlement? In a “life settlement” transaction, a life insurance policy owner sells his or her policy to an investor in exchange for a lump sum payment. The amount of the payment from the investor to the policy owner is generally less than the death benefit on the policy, but more than its cash surrender value. The dollar amount offered by the investor usually takes into account the insured’s life expectancy (age and health) and the terms and conditions of the insurance policy.
Why would a policy owner wish to sell a life insurance policy? Due to changed family or other circumstances, a life insurance policy owner may no longer need the insurance provided by the policy. A spouse may have died, children may have grown up, or a company with life insurance on a key officer may have been sold or gone out of business. Other policy owners may have difficulty making premium payments or simply need cash. In such circumstances, many policy owners surrender their policies or let their policies lapse by ceasing to make premium payments. Selling a policy to an investor may be another alternative. Such sales may be made through life settlement brokers who charge commissions.
How does a life settlement take place and who are the parties involved? A policy owner may discuss a possible settlement with his or her insurance agent or financial adviser, who then contacts a life settlement broker. In some cases, the policy owner may be solicited directly by a life settlement broker. Life settlement brokers may also be life insurance agents or securities brokers. Depending on the requirements of the states in which they do business, life settlement brokers may be licensed.
The life settlement broker obtains the insured’s authorization to release medical records and forwards the policy owner’s application and medical information to one or more companies known as life settlement providers. Many, but not all, states regulate life settlement providers, who also charge a commission.
The life settlement provider obtains life expectancy estimates on the insured and bids on the application. Life expectancy underwriters (who are not the insured’s personal physician) evaluate the risk of mortality of the insured based on his or her personal characteristics. If the life settlement provider’s bid is accepted, the provider may add that policy to a large group of policies, interests in which may be offered to investors. Institutional investors analyze the information provided by the life settlement provider, often obtaining their own life expectancy estimates. Retail investors, on the other hand, may have to rely on life settlement personnel or other investment professionals to assess the advantages and disadvantages of the transaction. In either case, the investor makes a cash payment to the policy owner or policy owners and continues to pay premiums necessary to keep the policy or policies in effect. Upon the insured’s death, the investor receives the death benefit.
Considerations for investors in life settlements. Before investing in a life settlement, investors may wish to keep the following points in mind.
- The return on a life settlement depends on the insured’s life expectancy and the date of the insured’s death. As a result, the accuracy of a life expectancy estimate is essential. If the insured dies before his or her estimated life expectancy, the investor may receive a higher return. If the insured lives longer than expected, the investor’s return will be lower. If the insured lives long enough or if life expectancy is miscalculated, additional premiums may need to be paid and the cost of the investment could be greater than anticipated.
- In response to investors’ concerns about the uncertainty of life expectancy estimates, some companies have incorporated purported life expectancy guarantee bonds into their offerings. These companies claim that if the insured does not die by the life expectancy date, they will pay investors the amount they would have received had the insured died by that date. Investors should be aware that the Commission has recently brought enforcement action against a company alleging that it made fraudulent claims about these bonds.
- Under certain circumstances, the investor may not receive the death benefit. For example, the life insurance company that issued the policy may refuse to pay out the death benefit if it believes the policy was sold under fraudulent circumstances. In addition, the heirs of the insured may challenge the life settlement or the insurance company may go out of business.
- The competence of a life expectancy underwriter and the accuracy of the life expectancy estimate are critical to the return on a life settlement. For the most part, life expectancy underwriters are not licensed or registered by state insurance regulators, and information about the methodologies and review procedures that life expectancy underwriters use is not generally disclosed.
- Life settlements can give rise to privacy issues. Insured individuals generally wish to keep their medical records and personal information confidential. Investors, on the other hand, want access to the insured’s medical and other personal information to assess the advisability of their investment and to monitor it on a continuing basis.
Investors may want to determine whether professionals involved in a life settlement transaction are registered or licensed. To check on the licensing or registration status of a life settlement broker or provider, contact your state insurance regulator. Contact information is available on the website of the National Association of Insurance Commissioners (www.naic.org). To check on the registration status of a securities broker, use the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority’s on-line BrokerCheck (www.finra.org).