Let’s be honest: in popular culture, the image of how life insurance works for people with pre-existing medical conditions is not exactly reassuring. Picture stone-faced actuarial drones looking for reasons to disqualify you from coverage, or inquisition-style medical exams that invade your privacy and eat up tons of your time… and then disqualify you from coverage. If you believe that you must have a medical record as pure as the driven snow even to be considered for a life insurance policy, then you might not even bother applying—which could put your loved ones at significant financial risk in the future.
Luckily, the truth is simple: yes, you can get life insurance with pre-existing medical conditions. Here’s some straight talk with help with an actuary at Haven Life, an online life insurance agency backed and wholly owned by MassMutual, about how it works—and some myth-busting about how it doesn’t.
Myth #1: Any pre-existing condition will jack up my insurance premiums or disqualify me from coverage
Let’s get this out of the way quickly: It all depends on the individual. (If the life insurance business had a single mantra, it would be that.)
“To be frank, if you do have a serious medical condition, it is likely that you’ll pay more than the very best rate—but there are also conditions that wouldn’t impact rates at all,” explains Laura McKieran Boylan, Haven Life’s Product Owner for Algorithmic Underwriting. Diabetes, hypertension, depression—all of these common pre-existing conditions, and many others, will not necessarily disqualify you from receiving a favorable premium on a life insurance policy.
Still, there’s a reason this myth persists. “It’s true that, in the past, underwriting policies have been fairly rigid,” Boylan says. “There were checklists, rules, points you count up based on certain conditions—but they didn’t take into account the full view of an individual.” Nowadays, sophisticated software and human actuaries work in concert to make much more personalized, holistic evaluations of an applicant’s health. According to Boylan, “certain chronic conditions are evaluated more favorably than in the past —because the way we approach underwriting isn’t so black-and-white.”
Myth #2: It’s best to downplay the details of my medical history, just to be safe.
If you’re in the market for a term life insurance policy, you’ll most likely have to answer detailed questions about your medical history. And if you have a pre-existing condition, you might be tempted to “simplify” things, in the hopes of streamlining the application process. Don’t! The truth is, it’ll just make more work for you down the road.
“If we see a prescription history that’s pointing out details that weren’t fully disclosed, then we have to have a human underwriter go through the entire application with a fine-toothed comb. That’s when delays happen,” Boylan says. “I know the process can sometimes seem overwhelming. The important thing is just to be honest and do the best you can to answer accurately.”
Here’s a pro tip: treat the application process as an interview, not a test. The insurer isn’t looking for things in your medical history to “ding” you on—instead, they’re seeking as much detail as possible so that they find a rate that works for you. “It might sound hokey, but we really want to give as many people as possible access to affordable life insurance coverage. And we can only advocate for them as much as they’ll tell us,” Boylan says.
Even better? Be your own advocate. “If you know that you’re managing your pre-existing condition healthfully, and you have records or even a doctor’s note saying so, we encourage applicants to upload that material,” Boylan adds.
Myth #3: The longer I’ve had a pre-existing condition, the worse it looks.
Actually, the opposite can be true. Life insurance companies like stability and predictability, so if your medical history shows that you’re managing your condition in a consistent way over months or even years, the information may work in your favor. For example, if you have a history of depression and “you’re on a first-line medication that’s been effective at controlling your symptoms, there is a good chance it won’t have an impact on your rates,” says Boylan.
Medically underwritten life insurance offers some of the most affordable pricing —so even if you do have a long-standing pre-existing condition, it’s still worth applying. If you end up being ineligible for coverage, there are other types of life insurance products that might be a better fit, albeit a bit more expensive, though.
Myth #4: If I try to get life insurance after receiving a serious medical diagnosis, I’m screwed.
Call it the “doomsday scenario”: you procrastinated on getting life insurance, then get hit with an unexpected diagnosis—and now you’re certain that no insurer will touch you. If such worries inspire you to explore life insurance options sooner rather than later, that’s great! But the truth is that even if you do find yourself in this predicament, you’ll almost certainly still be able to obtain some type of life insurance.
“A lot of serious medical conditions are treatable, and that can be a positive for life insurance underwriting,” says Boylan. In some cases, it’s possible to have your premium reevaluated after a period of time with improved health. If you manage to get your chronic condition under better control, you can request reconsideration to reduce your rate going forward.
If you are having a difficult time getting approved for coverage, there are other types of life insurance that may be a better fit. For example, a guaranteed issue policy, which as the name indicates, will cover you no matter what. This type of policy is usually limited to $50,000 or less, is more expensive than a medically underwritten policy, but is a sound option for those with critical illnesses who are seeking some kind of coverage to help with final expenses.
“Medically underwritten term life insurance is generally going to be the most affordable, so it’s a good place to start when seeking coverage,” says Boylan. “But if we can’t cover someone, it’s not uncommon for our customer success team to help direct the applicant to their next best option. We definitely want to problem-solve for people.”