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What are life insurance underwriting classes, and why do they matter?

Understanding underwriting classes can help you recognize the factors that determine how much you need to pay for your coverage.

Before we begin today, a quick refresher. Life insurance provides financial protection for your loved ones in the event of your death. A life insurance policy usually pays a guaranteed amount of money (a death benefit) that can assist your family at a time they would need it most.

You probably knew all that already, but we wanted to recap before addressing the question that this article is going to answer. Basically, when you apply for life insurance, you’re put into what’s called an underwriting class. Those classes are determined, in part, by your health, your occupation, your hobbies and your family’s history of illness. That said, they can seem a bit mysterious from the outside, so we wanted to shine a little light on what they are, how they work, and how they can affect you (and vice versa).

Phew. We’re glad that’s out of the way. Now, let’s commence with the light-shining, shall we?

It starts with medical underwriting

To determine a fair price for your policy, your insurance company will want to know about the current state of your health in a process known as medical underwriting. This means you’ll be asked questions about your age, weight, height, medical history, your lifestyle choices, and any other variables that might influence your future health. These questions are ultimately used to inform the underwriting process where the insurance company assesses the risk of providing you with coverage.

If your insurer determines that you are a low-risk prospect, your premiums will likely be lower than a high-risk prospect of the same age. For people with riskier health profiles, insurers may charge a higher monthly premium, exclude certain kinds of coverage, limit the amount of coverage offered, or even refuse to offer coverage at all.

Every insurer has its own underwriting process. The process of medical underwriting for a Haven Term policy, issued by our parent company MassMutual, looks like the following:

Submit an application

An application will be used as a starting point for your overall health. Once an application is submitted online, the information is analyzed in real-time and compared with third-party data sources. Often, you can get an instant decision on eligibility and, if approved, start your coverage that day.

Third-party data sources

Every insurance provider utilizes the same third-party data sources when conducting medical underwriting. This includes the Medical Information Bureau (MIB), prescription history, motor vehicle records and identity verification. These sources do a combination of verifying the information you reported and help the insurance company prevent fraud.Medical exam

In many cases, a medical exam is needed for medically underwritten coverage. Often, this can be done at your home, work or a facility — it’s up to your preference. This exam can include measurements for height, weight, and blood pressure; a life insurance blood test, and a urinalysis/drug test. At Haven Life, if a medical exam is needed once the application is submitted, we will help you schedule it. Pro tip: Consider booking a morning appointment since fasting before the exam is recommended. For more tips on preparing for the medical exam, refer to this helpful guide.

Attending physician statement

Depending on the results of your paramedical exam, your insurer may order an Attending Physician Statement in order to seek clarification about your medical condition. The Attending Physician Statement is a summary of your health condition, written from your doctor’s point of view. This can be useful for a number of reasons. Consider, for example, if you have high blood pressure only because you are taking a certain medication that causes hypertension as a side effect. You will want your insurance provider to know this.

Placing you in a life insurance underwriting class

This is the last step in the medical underwriting process. Your underwriting class will determine your underwriting rate class, what policy you are offered and at what price.

What is an underwriting class?

An underwriting class is a way of segmenting people into risk groups. People in a preferred rate class pay a lower premium than people in a standard class for the same amount of coverage, assuming non-health factors (e.g., age, gender, etc.) are the same. Why do insurance companies/underwriters use rate classes? Doing so allows insurers to have a more granular understanding of expected mortality for pricing and valuations, and thus to determine the appropriate premium amount based on risk and set the premium accordingly.

What are the different rate classes, specific to Haven Term?

Haven Term, the term insurance policy available through Haven Life, offers Standard and Preferred underwriting classes for both non-tobacco and tobacco users. There are additional classes called Table Ratings that may apply for people with more complex medical histories, which usually results in higher premium rates.

How long have insurers used the underwriting class system?

We’re so glad you asked! (And by “you” we mean “we,” but we digress.) Life insurers have historically been at the forefront of a lot of thinking around mortality because the business model relies on understanding those trends. Life insurers introduced tobacco rates in the 1980s because that was identified as one of the biggest stand-alone drivers of significant extra mortality. Then, blood testing was introduced in the late 1980s, in part due to the HIV epidemic. The availability of additional blood panels led to more comprehensive and nuanced underwriting classes.

Do all insurers use the same classes?

No! Most, if not all, use the same concepts of Standard and Preferred, non-tobacco and tobacco, and Table Ratings. But some insurers have more than two preferred classes, or they define current tobacco use differently. And every insurer uses slightly different underwriting guidelines to determine who falls into each class. Companies may have slightly different views on the severity of a certain medical condition, so they may be looser or tighter in how they assess the risk.

Thus, you might not even get the same class from one insurer to the next. So if you have a complicated medical history, it might be helpful to do a bit of comparison shopping and research before making a decision.

What factors determine your class?

There are quite a few things that can impact your underwriting class and therefore your life insurance premium. So, you know what? This calls for a bulleted list!

  • Medical history
  • Prescription history
  • Family history
  • Life insurance medical exam lab results (in some cases).
  • Tobacco use
  • Alcohol use
  • Drug use
  • Driving history
  • Foreign travel
  • Participation in extreme hobbies like skydiving (turns out skydiving is pretty dangerous)

Sometimes, even when you think you’re the picture of perfect health – you never smoke, you eat right, you work out regularly (your abs have abs), you can end up in a non-preferred underwriting class. This could occur due to something in your Rx history or labs that you may not have been aware of. Even slightly elevated levels of blood pressure can have an impact, for example. Every case is different, but a good customer service team (which Haven Life has) will usually be able to provide you with additional information and insight into the factors that impacted your underwriting class.

Can you improve your underwriting class?

As a matter of fact, you can. In some cases, you have to wait for a period of time before you can be reconsidered for a better class. The ways to possibly improve an insurance rate are the same obvious things you can do to improve your health overall: Quit smoking, lose weight, keep your blood pressure and cholesterol under control, and visit your doctor on a regular basis. Things that are probably a good idea even if you’re not trying to influence your underwriting class.

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Louis Wilson is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in a wide array of publications, both online and in print. He often writes about travel, sports, popular culture, men’s fashion and grooming, and more. He lives in Austin, Texas, where he has developed an unbridled passion for breakfast tacos, with his wife and two children. This article is sponsored by Haven Life Insurance Agency. Opinions are his own.

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About Louis Wilson

Louis Wilson is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in a wide array of publications, both online and in print. He often writes about travel, sports, popular culture, men’s fashion and grooming, and more. He lives in Austin, Texas, where he has developed an unbridled passion for breakfast tacos, with his wife and two children.

Read more by Louis Wilson

Our editorial policy

Haven Life is a customer-centric life insurance agency that’s backed and wholly owned by Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company (MassMutual). We believe navigating decisions about life insurance, your personal finances and overall wellness can be refreshingly simple.

Our editorial policy

Haven Life is a customer centric life insurance agency that’s backed and wholly owned by Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company (MassMutual). We believe navigating decisions about life insurance, your personal finances and overall wellness can be refreshingly simple.

Our content is created for educational purposes only. Haven Life does not endorse the companies, products, services or strategies discussed here, but we hope they can make your life a little less hard if they are a fit for your situation.

Haven Life is not authorized to give tax, legal or investment advice. This material is not intended to provide, and should not be relied on for tax, legal, or investment advice. Individuals are encouraged to seed advice from their own tax or legal counsel.

Our disclosures

Haven Term is a Term Life Insurance Policy (DTC and ICC17DTC in certain states, including NC) issued by Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company (MassMutual), Springfield, MA 01111-0001 and offered exclusively through Haven Life Insurance Agency, LLC. In NY, Haven Term is DTC-NY 1017. In CA, Haven Term is DTC-CA 042017. Haven Term Simplified is a Simplified Issue Term Life Insurance Policy (ICC19PCM-SI 0819 in certain states, including NC) issued by the C.M. Life Insurance Company, Enfield, CT 06082. Policy and rider form numbers and features may vary by state and may not be available in all states. Our Agency license number in California is OK71922 and in Arkansas 100139527.

MassMutual is rated by A.M. Best Company as A++ (Superior; Top category of 15). The rating is as of Aril 1, 2020 and is subject to change. MassMutual has received different ratings from other rating agencies.

Haven Life Plus (Plus) is the marketing name for the Plus rider, which is included as part of the Haven Term policy and offers access to additional services and benefits at no cost or at a discount. The rider is not available in every state and is subject to change at any time. Neither Haven Life nor MassMutual are responsible for the provision of the benefits and services made accessible under the Plus Rider, which are provided by third party vendors (partners). For more information about Haven Life Plus, please visit:

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