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How life insurance underwriting works

Find out how much you'll pay for coverage based on your risk profile.


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Underwriting is the process of assessing the level of risk presented to the insurer to calculate your premiums. The higher the risk, the higher the premiums. This is similar to how a car insurance company will ask you if you have had any previous license suspensions or accidents to assess your driving behavior and determine your rates.

What types of risk factors do life insurers check?

An underwriting team will evaluate your:

How does underwriting affect my policy?

The underwriting process can determine things such as:

  • Whether you’re eligible for coverage
  • The amount of coverage you can buy
  • The exclusions may be applied to your policy
  • How much you’ll pay for coverage

How does the life insurance underwriting process work?

Underwriting is the process of evaluating the degree of risk an applicant presents to the insurance company. Every insurer using its own complex underwriting guidelines to determine whether they should accept or reject an application, and to calculate rates.

1. When does underwriting happen?

You’ll have to complete the life insurance application, which asks about your medical and family health history, lifestyle, occupation and driving record. If the insurer feels the application wasn’t filled out thoroughly, you’ll likely receive a call from an insurer to fill in the blanks in order to move on to the next step of getting a life insurance policy — underwriting. This may involve taking a medical exam.

Your insurer will assign an underwriter to your case, who will then assess all the information you’ve provided, as well as the results of your medical exam, if applicable.

2. What documents do I need?

As a minimum, the insurer will require you to submit information about your:

  • Personal and contact details
  • Residency
  • Occupation
  • Financial status
  • Hobbies and habits
  • Medical history

3. What medical documents do I need?

  • Details of medical history. This can include statements or records from your doctor about pre-existing conditions or any treatments you’ve undertaken.
  • Prescriptions. You’ll need to prove information about any medication you’ve been prescribed.
  • General questions about the family medical history. Insurers will specifically want to know if your parents or siblings have suffered from serious health conditions, like stroke, cancer or Type 2 diabetes.

What risk factors affect my life insurance application?

Life insurance is based on calculable risk, so your insurer will look a range of factors when assessing your application. These include:

  • Age and gender. The younger you are, the higher your life expectancy — and the less risky you are to insurer. Men have a lower life expectancy than women, so they tend to pay more for coverage.
  • Smoking status. Smokers’ premiums are 2-3X times the normal rate. If you’re a smoker, you can’t qualify for any insurers’ preferred rate classes — but you may be able to once you’ve kicked the habit for at least a year.
  • Lifestyle. If you spend your spare time skydiving, bungee jumping or flying planes for fun, you may be deemed a high-risk applicant and be charged higher rates.
  • Occupation. People with dangerous jobs can expect to pay more expensive premiums.
  • Driving record. Typically, your recent driving record must be free of major traffic violations and DUIs to score the best premiums.
  • Alcohol or substance use. A history of alcohol or drug use can drive up your rates.
  • Family medical history. If your family has a history of critical health conditions, such as cancer or heart disease, you’ll likely be considered high risk. On the other hand, if you’re in good health and don’t have any genetic history or predisposition to serious illnesses, you may qualify for better rates.

How does medical underwriting work?

Depending on the policy you’ve chosen, you may need to take a medical exam. During the exam, a medical professional will record your height and weight, and request a blood and urine sample.

They’ll also ask you questions about your health and family history. These conditions pose a higher risk to the insurer, and may lead to an increase in rates:

  • Heart trouble and high blood pressure
  • Chest pains
  • Lung disorders
  • Bronchitis
  • Chronic indigestion
  • Diabetes type I and II
  • Malignant tumors or cancer
  • Kidney, bladder, liver disorders and stones
  • Hepatitis
  • Mental illness
  • Epilepsy

Compare life insurance companies

Name Product Types of Insurance Coverage Range Issue Ages Medical Exam Required Province Availability
Manulife Life Insurance
Term Life Insurance
$100,000 - $1,000,000
18 - 70 years old
Ontario, Alberta, Manitoba, New Brunswick, British Columbia
Manulife's CoverMe Term life insurance is simple and straightforward coverage that suits your lifestyle and budget. Get a free quote on PolicyMe.
Canada Protection Plan Life Insurance
Canada Protection Plan Life Insurance
Term Life Insurance
18 - 70 years old
Ontario, Alberta, Manitoba, New Brunswick, British Columbia
Canada Protection Plan's Preferred Term life insurance is suitable for those in good health. Get a free quote on PolicyMe.
BMO Life Insurance
Term Life Insurance
$100,000 - $5,000,000
18 - 75 years old
Ontario, Alberta, Manitoba, New Brunswick, British Columbia
BMO Term life insurance provides you with coverage for 10, 15, 20, 25 or 30 years. Get a free quote on PolicyMe.
Assumption Life Insurance
Assumption Life Insurance
Term Life Insurance
18 - 75 years old
Ontario, Alberta, Manitoba, New Brunswick, British Columbia
Choose from five different term life insurance plans with Assumption Life. Get a free quote on PolicyMe.
 Life Insurance Through PolicyAdvisor
Whole Life Insurance, Term Life Insurance, Permanent, Universal
$25,000 - $5,000,000
18 - 72 years old
Alberta, Manitoba, Ontario
Policy Advisor is a digital life insurance brokerage that has partnerships with 20 insurers in Canada.
Sun Life Go Simplified Term Life Insurance
Term Life Insurance
18 - 69 years old
All of Canada
Sun Life Go Simplified Term Life Insurance covers you for 10 years, during which time your premiums are guaranteed not to rise. Apply for up to $100,000 in coverage.
Sun Life Go Term Life Insurance
Term Life Insurance
$100,000 - $1,000,000
18 - 69 years old
All of Canada
Sun Life Go Term Life Insurance is a standard term life insurance option that guarantees your premiums in the first 10 or 20 years of your policy.
Sun Life Go Guaranteed Life Insurance
$5,000 - $25,000
30 - 74 years old
All of Canada
Permanent life insurance coverage that guarantees fixed premiums until 95 years old (and no premiums thereafter).

Compare up to 4 providers

Do all life insurance policies require a medical exam?

No. If you don’t want to take the medical exam for whatever reason, you can apply for a policy with simplified underwriting. These are the 2 main options:

Simplified issue life insurance

Simplified issue life insurance skips the medical exam and relies on the applicant to answer questions about their medical history. Most applicants are approved, but there are a few “knockout” questions, such as if you’re in a wheelchair.

Guaranteed life insurance

With guaranteed acceptance life insurance, you can get a life insurance policy without taking a medical exam or having to answer any medical questions. But because the insurer is giving you a policy without knowing anything about your past medical history, premiums will be expensive and death benefits will often be lower than a common life insurance policy.

Life insurance policies that don’t require a medical exam

Why is underwriting necessary?

It comes down to the insurer’s financials. If the underwriters don’t do a good job and quote high premiums, the insurer stands to lose out on a lot of business to their competitors. Similarly, if the underwriters don’t calculate a person’s risk correctly and quote lower premiums, the insurer may lose money by covering high-risk individuals at lower rates.

Bottom line

Life insurance underwriting is the process that determines how risky you are in the eyes of your insurer. It has a direct effect on your premiums — young, healthy people typically get the best rates because their risk is lowest. But even if you have a history of health conditions or risky behavior, you could still find a life insurance policy to fit your needs.

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