Thursday, July 20, 2017

No. 226: The Age 100 Problem—The Achilles' Heel of Life Insurance—Lands in Court

On July 20, 2017, Gary Lebbin and a trust he created filed a lawsuit against Transamerica Life Insurance Company relating to what I have called "the age 100 problem in life insurance." The case involves universal life and illustrates problems faced by elderly insureds. The following paragraph is in the introductory section of the complaint:
2. For decades, life insurance carriers, such as Transamerica, sold permanent universal life insurance policies, marketed as "insurance for life," utilizing outdated mortality tables that did not take into account the fact that Americans were, and are, increasingly living to and past the age of 100. The result has been the improper termination of life insurance policies that were originally sold to policy holders as "permanent insurance." The life insurance industry has left its customers (who faithfully paid their premiums with the expectation that they would have coverage for the remainder of their lives) uninsured. Further twisting the knife, these terminations have exposed customers to adverse tax consequences that are in direct contradiction to the guarantees made when these policies were purchased.
The case was assigned to U.S. District Judge Theodore D. Chuang. President Obama nominated him in September 2013 and the Senate confirmed him in May 2014. (See Lebbin v. Transamerica, U.S. District Court, District of Maryland, Case No. 8:17-cv-1870.)

The Plaintiffs
Lebbin was born in September 1917 in Germany, came to the United States in 1938 to escape Nazi persecution, and married in 1944. His wife died in 2015 at age 97. He has two children, four grandchildren, and seven great-grandchildren. In 1990 he created a trust that purchased two second-to-die universal life policies from Transamerica with a total face amount of $3.2 million. His two children are the trustees of the trust.

The Policies
The policies are second-to-die policies on Lebbin and his wife. Now that she is deceased, the policies are single-life policies. They are based on the 1980 Commissioners Standard Ordinary (CSO) mortality table, in which the terminal age is 100. The terminal age is the age at which the table shows no survivors among insureds. In other words, the death rate in the year prior to the terminal age is 1 (or 1,000 deaths per 1,000 lives). Thus the table is based on the assumption that no one among the insured population survives to age 100. Lebbin will reach the terminal age in September 2017.

Marketing of the Policies
Lebbin says Transamerica represented the policies as "permanent" coverage that would insure him and his wife "for life," that would provide for the "cash value earnings" to grow income-tax-deferred, that the death benefit would be income-tax-exempt, and that "withdrawals (and thus the ability to determine when and if the cash value earnings would constitute taxable income) would be within the control of the Plaintiffs."

I visited the Transamerica website in July 2017. Here is how the company describes whole life and universal life:
Whole life insurance provides permanent protection for life as long as premiums are paid. In addition to guaranteed cash value that you can access through a loan, your loved ones are guaranteed to receive a death benefit. You should expect to pay a higher premium than you would for a term life policy, but your premiums remain the same throughout your lifetime.
Unlike term and whole life insurance, universal life provides an additional level of flexibility. It allows policy owners to modify the amount and frequency of premium payments as long as there is sufficient cash value in the policy to cover monthly deductions. When the insured dies, a guaranteed amount of money, or death benefit, is left to the named beneficiaries. In addition to the death benefit, universal life also contains a cash value. The cash value grows tax-deferred until funds are withdrawn.
The Insuring Agreement
The insuring agreement is the heart of any insurance policy. Here is the full insuring agreement in Lebbin's policies:
While the policy is in force, Transamerica Occidental Life Insurance Company will pay the death benefit to the beneficiary if both Joint Insureds die before the policy anniversary nearest Joint Equal Age 100, or will pay the net cash value, if any, to the owner on the policy anniversary nearest Joint Equal Age 100 if both or either Joint Insured is living on that date. All payments are subject to the provisions of this policy.
The definitions section of the policy says "Joint Equal Age" is "the adjusted age of the Joint Insureds which reflects a risk that would be equivalent to two people of the same age, class of risk, and smoking status." Since Lebbin's wife is no longer living, the policy is now a single-life policy. Here is the effective language of the insuring agreement:
While the policy is in force, Transamerica Occidental Life Insurance Company will pay the death benefit to the beneficiary if the Insured dies before the policy anniversary nearest age 100, or will pay the net cash value, if any, to the owner on the policy anniversary nearest age 100 if the Insured is living on that date. All payments are subject to the provisions of this policy.
Lebbin alleges that, on top of the loss of the death benefit, his (or the trust's) receipt of the cash values of the policies at age 100 will have adverse income tax consequences. I do not know the magnitude of the tax problem because I do not know how Transamerica calculates the amount of taxable income shown on the Form 1099 it sends to the policyholder. Nor do I have access to the statements that Transamerica promised to provide to the policyowner each year.

Extended Maturity Riders
The 2001 CSO mortality table has a terminal age of 121. According to the Lebbin complaint, some life insurance companies—but not Transamerica—offer the option of an Extended Maturity Rider (EMR) for universal life policyholders who own policies based on older mortality tables that have a terminal age of 100. Although EMRs are discussed in actuarial publications, I am not aware of any discussions of EMRs for traditional whole life policies. Here is Principal Life Insurance Company's brief description of its EMR for universal life policies:
If the insured reaches the stated maturity age, maturity is extended to the date of his or her death. The rider is automatically added to policies in states where approved, and there is no charge for the rider. There will be no charges during the maturity extension period. However, loan interest will continue to be charged. No additional premium payments, other than loan payments, will be allowed.
According to the Lebbin complaint, he wrote to Transamerica and asked the company to attach EMRs to his policies. The company declined the request.

The Complaint
The counts in Lebbin's complaint are breach of contract, negligent misrepresentation, fraud (intentional misrepresentation), violations of Maryland's Consumer Protection Act, unjust enrichment, declaratory relief, reformation, and rescission. He requests, among other forms of relief, a declaratory judgment, compensatory and punitive damages, an injunction, reformation or rescission, pre-judgment and post-judgment interest, attorney fees, and court costs.

General Observations
I first wrote about the age 100 problem in 2001, in two articles in The Insurance Forum. I also wrote about the problem in No. 141 (posted February 1, 2016), where I said I was writing to four companies in which my wife and I own life insurance to ask about the problem. Three letters went to policyholder service departments. They did not understand my inquiry. One, for example, sent beneficiary change forms.

The fourth letter went to an executive who understood my inquiry. He said his company writes to the policyholder several months before the insured reaches age 100. The company offers to hold the money after age 100, pay interest on it, refrain from charging further premiums, and pay the money at the insured's death. He sent me a sample letter. It did not address the question of whether the policyholder who accepts the offer would have constructive receipt (for income tax purposes) of the death benefit at the terminal age after having accepted the offer to allow the company to hold the money until the insured's death. The standard company response to the income tax question is to "consult your tax adviser," despite the fact that there is no way a tax adviser would be in a position to answer the question.

It is an understatement to say the age 100 problem is serious. Indeed, I think the problem is the Achilles' heel of life insurance. The bedrock principles of life insurance marketing are the income-tax-deferred inside interest and the income-tax-exempt death benefit. The problem is so serious that, as I said in my second Forum article on the subject, the companies do not want to discuss the matter. I further believe that neither the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) nor the income-tax-writing committees of Congress want to discuss the matter.

Now we have the Lebbin case. It is not a class action; indeed, there is no time for a class action because Lebbin is close to the terminal age. Even if the case survives the inevitable motion to dismiss the complaint, there would be no time for discovery, and there would be no time for a trial. I believe and hope that Transamerica and Lebbin's attorneys will be able to reach a confidential settlement that will solve his immediate problem.

I think the only way to force the industry and other interested parties to address the age 100 problem is to mount a class action. If it survives the motion to dismiss the complaint, and if a class is certified, the parties would have powerful incentives to avoid a trial, and any proposed settlement would be in the public domain.

Available Material
In No. 141, I offered a 37-page complimentary PDF consisting of the two 2001 Forum articles (4 pages), an excerpt from a variable universal life prospectus (1 page), a 2009 IRS request for comments (8 pages), a 2009 comment letter from the American Council of Life Insurers (22 pages), and a 2010 IRS revenue procedure (2 pages). The package is still available. Email and ask for the February 2016 package about the age 100 problem.

I am now offering a 54-page complimentary PDF consisting of the Lebbin complaint (20 pages) and an exhibit showing the $2 million Lebbin policy (34 pages). Email and ask for the July 2017 package about the age 100 problem.