Variable Universal Life insurance or in short VUL is sold by insurance agents as a smart investment to unsuspecting people. The pitch usually goes like this:
You invest in VUL. The money in the policy grows tax deferred. You get to choose what you invest in, stocks, bonds, international, you name it. It’s like a super IRA, only way better. When you need money after you retire, you can first withdraw what you put in, then borrow from it, all tax free. When you die, your beneficiaries receive money tax free.
Sounds good? Tax deferred investing plus tax free income after retirement. Who wouldn’t go for it? If you’d like to read the full pitch, here’s an example: Variable Universal Life: Flexibility at Its Best by New York Life, whose slogan is “the company you keep.” It’s very enticing but you will see the real story at the end of this post.
VUL appeals to people who hate taxes (who doesn’t?), especially to people who have higher income and therefore in higher tax brackets. After you hear about this wonderful clever way of avoiding taxes on your investment, you go “sign me up!” Uh oh, big mistake. Let’s take a look at a real life example, from this thread on the Bogleheads forum.
Poster John and his wife each bought a VUL policy from a “friend” who works as a financial “advisor” at a “well known financial planning organization” (I’m guessing it’s Ameriprise or formerly American Express Financial Advisors). After 9 months into their policies they put in about $5,000 each for a total of $10,000. Now they realize that their VUL policies have high fees and expenses, to the tune of $1,100 a year. But, if they get out before 5 years, they will lose ALL of the $10,000 they paid into the policies (?!?!) because the first $8,300 in each policy goes toward a “surrender charge” or better put, early termination fee like that on a cell phone contract. In other words, if John and his wife put $3,300 more into each policy, the policies will still suck it all in like a black hole with nothing coming out. They paid $10,000 into two policies but they only filled a little more than half way up the big hole that the VUL policies dug for them.
Despite all the help from other posters on the forum, John’s options are still limited because the policies are designed to trap them in good with high fees and various charges. John and his wife can:
- Keep paying into the policies and get plucked by high fees (not good); or
- Cancel the policies now and receive nothing back (not good); or
- Stop paying premiums and let the policies wind down by themselves (not good)
None of the three options is good. The 3rd option is perhaps the least of all evils. Basically they will let what they already paid pay for the insurance and whatever is left over stays in some mediocre investment options with high fees. Every month more money is deducted from the investments part towards the insurance part and fees. After the 5-year surrender period is over, I doubt there will be anything left. Their policies may end even before 5 years because all the money will have been depleted by insurance charges and fees. That $10,000 is gone. They won’t ever see it again. What an expensive lesson!
I feel really sorry for John and his wife. Having this done to them by a “friend” is even more sad. This VUL saga plays out over and over. It’s almost always the same story. I personally know a small business owner who was sold a VUL policy by his “financial advisor” who is also an insurance agent. The “advisor” has nice sounding credentials like CLU and ChFC. The business owner was quite mad at the “advisor” after I pointed out the fees and expenses printed in black and white in the prospectus. Of course he didn’t read the prospectus because he was busy running his business and he trusted that his so-called “advisor” would act in his best interest. The same “advisor” also sold him load funds, an expensive 401(k) plan for his business, limited partnerships that were impossible to get out of … — altogether the “advisor” cost him more than $200k.
Now let’s get back to the wonderful VUL policies New York Life sells. Here’s the 80-page prospectus (PDF, 476kB) of their NYLIAC Variable Universal Life 2000 product. Fees and expenses start on page 9.
- 4.5% – 6% charge up front for each deposit, like a load; plus
- $120 a year contract fees; plus
- 0.5% – 0.7% a year for M&E and admin charges; plus
- ~0.8% a year for expenses on investment options
Does it look like a good way of investing money? I like what poster ole meph said  on the Bogleheads forum:
“The only way you can benefit from this product is by dying fairly soon.”
Oh wonderful. I’m sure the clients didn’t want to pursue that route when they bought into the VUL policies.
 ole meph has been a veteran insurance agent and manager himself for over 40 years.