Some estimates suggest as many as 3 out of 4 American adults are considered clinically overweight or obese, according to BMI data from the CDC. Those who have been flagged as obese may deal with discrimination and medical bias, making the prospect of applying for life insurance unappealing. Can you even get life insurance when your body doesn’t conform to expectations for a “healthy” weight?
The good news is it’s fairly rare for a life insurance provider to reject your application based solely on your size. It’s true that weight is a factor in calculating your risk, but other factors matter much more than the number on the scale.
A life insurance underwriter’s job is to use health and lifestyle details from your application to assess your risk and calculate the best policy the company can offer you. When you apply for a life insurance policy, you’ll typically undergo a medical exam and provide detailed information about your health history. You might be able to skip that with no-exam life insurance, though in some cases this option is only available to healthy people with an uncomplicated medical history.
Todd Young, an underwriter with over 20 years of experience at multiple companies, including Fabric, says, “I’m here to be the middleman between a client who wants the best rates and a company that doesn’t want to take unnecessary risk.”
Underwriters’ guidelines are based on mortality statistics—who’s most at risk of dying and what health issues are associated with higher risk. Because medical research indicates a connection between weight and certain health conditions, weight is a factor in calculating someone’s insurance risk.
One piece of good news is most insurance companies use their own height/weight matrix, which can be more inclusive than the CDC’s BMI chart.
Life insurance companies generally group applicants into tiers or rating classes that indicate their relative risk of dying during a certain time period. The people with a lower risk of death will generally receive the best rates, and people with higher risk will have more expensive premiums. Some might not be offered coverage if they present a high risk.
“Most companies will have at least two tiers of preferred or select [ratings],” Young says. “And then you fall into what’s called standard rate.” The levels below standard are called “tables,” and each table adds 25 percent to the standard premium rate.
So if a standard rate is $40 per month, a table 2 rate (or table B, if the insurance company uses a letter system) would be $60. Insurance companies offer a different number of tables, so even if your weight or health puts you in substandard categories, shopping around can help you find companies that can offer you a policy.
Your weight plays a role in life insurance ratings, but other health factors can have a much greater influence. Different weight thresholds can signal an underwriter to move an application into different ratings levels, but your overall health and family history is more important than your weight alone.
According to Young, an applicant who’s 5’6” and up to roughly 187 lbs. could potentially qualify for better-than-standard ratings, depending on the rest of their application.
An underwriter may also have some room to advocate for an applicant. Some insurance companies set firm limits on weight thresholds for each ratings class, but others let underwriters use their judgment to recommend a client for a better rating even if they’re over the weight limit.
“As an underwriter, I’m given some discretion in how much I can push a weight,” Young says. “If you’re up to 10 pounds over but you have good blood pressure and good cholesterol, [there could be some] discretion.” In other words, if an applicant is on the border between classes, an underwriter may have discretionary power to put them in the more favorable class, even if they’re 10 pounds over the official limit.
Weight doesn’t tell the whole story about a person’s health. It’s entirely possible—and not uncommon—to be heavier and “metabolically healthy,” meaning that you have no more than one risk factor for heart disease or diabetes. The flip is also true: About 1 in 3 Americans with a “normal” BMI classification are also metabolically unhealthy.
Life insurance companies and underwriters base their decisions on the data they have, which means you have an opportunity to share information that reflects your actual fitness.
For example, the more muscular you are, the more you weigh compared to a less muscular person who’s the same size. A person can register as clinically obese or close to it based on weight, but muscle mass can be the tipping factor.
“There’s been a longstanding problem with (failing to account for muscularity and weight) in the insurance world,” Young says. He and other underwriters rely on applicants to provide additional details. One option could be to include chest and waist measurements in your application. A relatively narrow waist could indicate a more athletic torso shape.
Whether your body fits a conventionally “athletic” shape or not, mentioning lifestyle notes can also help underwriters understand your fitness. If you qualify for the Boston Marathon, hit the gym four days a week or get a physical exam every year, any of these can be positive indicators that you’re proactive about your health, regardless of your size. Share this information in an online follow-up or phone interview when you provide your medical information. If the application includes a way to share additional notes, you can add details there as well.
Keep in mind that this information won’t automatically bump you into a more favorable rate class, but if the underwriter has discretionary power and your application is borderline between classes, it could be helpful information for them to make a final determination.
The important takeaway here is that underwriters aren’t looking for reasons to deny people for their size. The more positive information you can provide about your health and lifestyle, the more confident an underwriter may feel to stretch guidelines where they can to help you get the most favorable rating they can offer.
“There’s always opportunity, there’s always hope,” Young says.
Weight loss is a common goal in American culture, with nearly half of adults having attempted to lose weight in the past 12 months, but weight loss does not guarantee health improvements and may happen for unhealthy reasons.
Losing weight may affect your life insurance application in a few ways. The biggest way would be if weight loss affected other metrics, such as improving your bloodwork. It’s also possible that your weight loss would nudge you toward a better ratings category, although the impact may not be as much as what you see on the scale.
Underwriters generally “count” half of an applicant’s weight loss in the past 12 months. That’s because the majority of people who lose weight regain some or all of it as their body returns to a previous “weight set point.” If an applicant lost 30 lbs. in the past year, an underwriter will typically add 15 lbs. back to account for the likelihood of their regaining.
If you opt for a surgical procedure, such as gastric bypass surgery, to help you lose weight, you’ll probably be restricted to a substandard or table rating category for about a year afterwards. This is in part because major surgeries can require follow-up procedures to resolve complications. You will also notice that, again, only half the weight you lose counts on the application for the first year.
This can sound like you are in a bind—stay at a high weight and you get penalized, lose the weight and it doesn’t fully count (and you may still get penalized if you opt for surgery).
Time is on your side, though. Underwriters take a conservative approach at first, but they may adjust their stance later.
“If you’ve kept [the weight] off for a year, we won’t add half back,” Young says. Maintaining the weight loss for a year generally means your weight gets taken at face value again, without adding anything back. “And at some companies, after a year, you can request a rate class reconsideration.” (Note that currently Fabric doesn’t offer this option.)
If you’ve lost weight recently and don’t want to postpone getting life insurance, ask if rate class reconsideration is an option down the line.
An eating disorder diagnosis is one of the most powerful illustrations that weight loss isn’t necessarily a positive or healthy goal. Eating disorders affect roughly 9% of the population over the course of their lifetime. Contrary to popular media portrayal, most people with eating disorders aren’t underweight. People with larger bodies may have a harder time getting a diagnosis or help for an eating disorder due to social and medical pressure to lose weight.
“Once someone with [an eating disorder] gets back to normal weight, we postpone them for a year, and they will be in substandard rates for as many as five years after they recover,” Young says. If your eating disorder experience didn’t include a period of time of being underweight, underwriters may use another indication, such as a notice from a doctor that you’re in remission.
If you’re struggling with an eating disorder, the most important priority is getting help. While underwriters will be cautious for a period of time after you’re in recovery, a diagnosis isn’t a black mark on your insurability forever. You’ll still need to provide your weight on an application, but you might choose to have the medical examiner record your weight without telling you the number if that’s best for your recovery.
Health is multidimensional and carrying some extra weight won’t shut you out from getting life insurance in most cases. Insurance providers and underwriters work to collect and review as much information as they can to get a full picture of your health and potential risks. It’s worth comparing options, but there’s a good chance that you’ll find a provider that can set you up with the coverage you need.
Fabric exists to help young families master their money. Our articles abide by strict editorial standards. This article has been reviewed and approved by a compliance professional who is a licensed life insurance agent.
Fabric by Gerber Life exists to help young families master their money. Our articles abide by strict editorial standards.
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