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Choosing a Life Insurance Agent

By Sandy John, Contributing Reporter

Do away with whatever image of you have of life insurance agents, and think of them as a guide, someone who can walk you through a complicated set of decisions that could affect the lives of your loved ones when you're no longer there for them.

"Life insurance is a complex product," noted Jack Dolan, a spokesman for the American Council of Life Insurance. "An agent can be very helpful in advising you. An agent can help you find the policy that meets your needs today and in the future."

Insurance agents know which kinds of life insurance are right for a young family just starting out, which work as a savings vehicle, which could be useful in retirement planning or estate planning.

"Life insurance has lots of functions. An agent can lay that all out for you," Dolan said.

In other words, an agent can save you lots of time you'd spend researching the issue on your own. He can serve as your guide now, and help you map your insurance needs in years to come as your situation changes. He can help you find a policy you can afford, and he can prevent you from making mistakes that could be very painful for your beneficiaries after your death, such as not having the right kind or amount of insurance.

How do you select an agent to work with? Begin by asking friends, relatives and neighbors if they would recommend their life insurance agent. Most people are happy to recommend a professional whose service they have been pleased with. Compile a list of three or four agents that you'd be interested in working with, based on personal recommendations.

You can also utilize LifeInsurance.net's Agent Locator to find an agent near you. Just enter your three-digit area code to view a listing of local agents, including address, phone, e-mail, and a complete profile of each agency. Next, talk to each agent on your list. Ask what products they specialize in, who their typical client is, what insurers they represent, how long they have been in business, what services they offer, and any other concerns you might have. While you're getting information about their practice, get a feel for how you would get along with each person in a professional relationship. After all, you're buying life insurance for the long haul, and you will have to share intimate details about your life, finances and plans with your insurance agent. (And a good agent will ask you about those issues before trying to sell you any policy.) Pick someone you are comfortable dealing with and someone who can translate insurance-speak into language you understand.

Insurance agents can earn a number of professional designations, such as Chartered Life Underwriter (CLU). Some have training in financial planning as well as insurance, and have earned designations such as Chartered Financial Consultant (ChFC) or Certified Financial Planner (CFP). These advanced studies take several years to complete, and such designations are one indication the agent is serious about his job and up to date on issues in insurance and financial planning, Dolan said. And those who use the designation are often required to follow a code of conduct. You may want to make one of those designations a requirement for the agent you choose.

All insurance agents are licensed by the states they do business in, and an agent should be willing to provide information about that license. Check with regulators to make sure the agent has the proper licenses and has not been disciplined. You can call your state insurance commission or access the department's Web page by clicking on your state on this link through the National Association of Insurance Commissioners: (http://www.naic.org/consumer/state/usamap.htm ).

Agents who sell variable life insurance products must also be registered with the National Association of Securities Dealers. You can check with the NASD (http://www.nasdr.com/2000.htm) for information about the firm's registration.

Remember, a good agent not only sells insurance; he helps guide his clients through the sometimes complex maze of choices associated with term, whole life, universal life, variable life and other life insurance options. And once he makes the sale, he will continue to service the client, including performing periodic "insurance checkups" to make sure the policy he sold you a few years ago still meets your needs.

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