Life insurance underwriting starts with your medical exam and proceeds through your application answers, your Motor Vehicle Record, your Pharmacy record, any records on you in the Medical Information Bureau, and possibly a review of your doctor's records. When the underwriter has reviewed all of this, he or she may have additional questions which will be passed to your by your life insurance agent. When all the answers are in, the underwriter issues an underwriting rate class for you. The rate class is what determines your life insurance premium.
All of the fully underwritten policies have at least three possible rate classes. They might be called by different names, but the most common are Standard, Standard Plus and Preferred. Many companies add a fourth rate class, Preferred Plus. At least one company that we know of (Genworth) has five rate classes: Custom, Standard, Select, Preferred and Preferred Best. There are also substandard ratings for those with less than standard underwriting variables. These substandard ratings are referred to as "tables", and are based on a factor applied to the Standard rate. Most companies will use no more than eight tables, with the highest factor equal to 3. If the underwriting variables are not within that range, the company declines to offer a policy.
So what are the most important life insurance underwriting variables? They are gender, age, nicotine usage, height, weight, medical exam lab results (the most important of which are cholesterol and tryglicerides), blood pressure, family history of heart disease or cancer, your own health history, driving record, and occupational and lifestyle hazards. There is nothing you can do about your gender, age or family history, but you have at least some degree of control over all the others. Be sure to put your best foot forward when you apply for life insurance. See our article on the insurance medical exam for some pointers.
In addition to underwriting variables, you will also want to find companies with competitive rates. This site provides a tool where you can find the top 15 life insurance companies in each of four underwriting categories. Keep these companies in mind as you do your research for life insurance.