Life Insurance: Determining Your Need

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Life Insurance: Determining Your NeedYou may have heard that “Life insurance is a gift of love.” But if you bought a $100,000 whole-life policy because you wanted to build some cash value when you should have bought a million dollars of low-cost term insurance to meet the survival needs of your family, your well-intentioned effort was not an act of love.

Objective life insurance advice is hard to find. Prior to joining the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors (NAPFA), Bob Arms, CLU, ChFC, AIF®, coauthor of this week’s column, sold life insurance for 26 years. He is currently licensed as a life insurance consultant, a fiduciary whose legal obligation is to represent the client first.

The first step toward representing your best interests entails an in-depth discussion of how much life insurance you might or might not need. The formula is Future Financial Needs minus Current Assets equals Your Current Risk. How much you want to provide for your loved ones should you predecease them (A) minus how much you have that could be used to provide for the survivors (B) equals your surplus or shortage (C).

To the extent that a gap exists between your financial needs and your current assets, life insurance is the most efficient product available to provide tax-free dollars exactly when you need them. As you go through the life changes of marriage, children, and career, you should recalculate your need and revisit the life insurance you own.

When members of a young family are making a decision about life insurance, six line items are significant.

1. Debts: The baggage of debt makes the journey toward financial success difficult. Avoid debt if possible, but if you have any, don’t burden your family with it after you are gone. Being able to liquidate all credit card debt and car, home equity, and personal loans will give your surviving family the best chance at success in life.

2. Mortgage: Carrying a long-term fixed-rate mortgage keeps more money invested in the markets and qualifies you to enjoy a tax deduction on the interest. Leverage is a popular financial strategy of the rich. But if you would sleep better at night without a mortgage, sleep is more important. Either way, you need enough insurance or investments to pay off the mortgage.

3. Educational and child-care expenses: Depending on the age of your children, multiple expenses must be considered. If your children are preschoolers, the cost of child care may make it impractical for the surviving spouse to return to work. Consider the math. When the children are school age, will you want them to attend private school? Call the schools in your area and work the numbers. What percentage do you want to help with college? In-state tuition, room, board, books and transportation for college presently averages $6,185 annually. Private schools cost about $23,712 per year. Which do you want to fund?

4. Final expenses: Include a small amount for your funeral, approximately $10,000. The average funeral today costs $5,000 to $7,000, but expenses can exceed $10,000.

5. Family income: Estimating a young family’s income needs is very challenging. To ease the mental strain, use seven times your adjusted gross income as a rule of thumb. A more accurate prediction requires either a financial calculator or a computer program.

6. Emergency fund: No one can forecast the exact amount a surviving family will actually need, but this category does absorb a potential miscalculation. Most gaps are filled by using 10% of the total of the other five line items: debts, mortgage, education, final expenses and family income.

Now that you have an estimate of how much your family needs, compare the total with your current assets. Include only the assets the surviving spouse can use for expenses. So do not include your house because your spouse needs someplace to live; your car because transportation is essential; or your retirement assets, which the surviving spouse will need during retirement. Nor should you count any inheritance. The old adage is true: Don’t count your chickens before they hatch. This category is the total of your current life insurance and all investment assets.

The easiest math remains: Your Total Future Financial Needs minus Your Current Assets equals The Current Risk you may want to insure against. To determine how much life insurance the other spouse should carry, trade places as the first to die and rerun the numbers. Clearly, if the bottom line is positive, you’ve done something right and either you have enough life insurance or you are self-insured. Congratulations. If the bottom line is negative, thankfully you still have time to take action.

Financial planning is a lifelong process that covers multiple areas, including investments, insurance and taxation. Reviewing all of your financial affairs periodically with a trustworthy advisor who sits on your side of the table will ensure that you achieve your financial goals.

For more information about life insurance–how to shop for it, what to buy, what to do with what you have or other questions–you are invited to attend the NAPFA Consumer Education Foundation meeting. Bob Arms, CLU, ChFC, AIF®, will present a talk, “Straight Talk about Life Insurance,” on Saturday, March 22, noon to 1:30 p.m., at the Northside Library in the Albemarle Square shopping center.

For more information, call (434) 244-0000. To learn more about the NAPFA Foundation, visit All presentations are free and open to the public. You are encouraged to attend and to bring your financial questions.

Photo by Wolfgang Hasselmann on Unsplash

Follow David John Marotta:

President, CFP®, AIF®, AAMS®

David John Marotta is the Founder and President of Marotta Wealth Management. He played for the State Department chess team at age 11, graduated from Stanford, taught Computer and Information Science, and still loves math and strategy games. In addition to his financial writing, David is a co-author of The Haunting of Bob Cratchit.