Life insurance (or life assurance, especially in the Commonwealth of Nations) is a contract between an insurance policy holder and an insurer or assurer, where the insurer promises to pay a designated beneficiary a sum of money (the benefit) in exchange for a premium, upon the death of an insured person (often the policy holder). Depending on the contract, other events such as terminal illness or critical illness can also trigger payment. The policy holder typically pays a premium, either regularly or as one lump sum. Other expenses, such as funeral expenses, can also be included in the benefits.
Life policies are legal contracts and the terms of the contract describe the limitations of the insured events. Specific exclusions are often written into the contract to limit the liability of the insurer; common examples are claims relating to suicide, fraud, war, riot, and civil commotion.
Modern life insurance bears some similarity to the asset management industry and life insurers have diversified their products into retirement products such as annuities.
Life-based contracts tend to fall into two major categories:
Protection policies: designed to provide a benefit, typically a lump sum payment, in the event of a specified occurrence. A common form—more common in years past—of a protection policy design is term insurance.
Investment policies: the main objective of these policies is to facilitate the growth of capital by regular or single premiums. Common forms (in the U.S.) are whole life, universal life, and variable life policies.
An early form of life insurance dates to Ancient Rome; “burial clubs” covered the cost of members' funeral expenses and assisted survivors financially. The first company to offer life insurance in modern times was the Amicable Society for a Perpetual Assurance Office, founded in London in 1706 by William Talbot and Sir Thomas Allen. Each member made an annual payment per share on one to three shares with consideration to age of the members being twelve to fifty-five. At the end of the year a portion of the “amicable contribution” was divided among the wives and children of deceased members, in proportion to the number of shares the heirs owned. The Amicable Society started with 2000 members.
The first life table was written by Edmund Halley in 1693, but it was only in the 1750s that the necessary mathematical and statistical tools were in place for the development of modern life insurance. James Dodson, a mathematician and actuary, tried to establish a new company aimed at correctly offsetting the risks of long term life assurance policies, after being refused admission to the Amicable Life Assurance Society because of his advanced age. He was unsuccessful in his attempts at procuring a charter from the government.
His disciple, Edward Rowe Mores, was able to establish the Society for Equitable Assurances on Lives and Survivorship in 1762. It was the world's first mutual insurer and it pioneered age based premiums based on mortality rate laying "the framework for scientific insurance practice and development" and “the basis of modern life assurance upon which all life assurance schemes were subsequently based”.
Mores also gave the name actuary to the chief official—the earliest known reference to the position as a business concern. The first modern actuary was William Morgan, who served from 1775 to 1830. In 1776 the Society carried out the first actuarial valuation of liabilities and subsequently distributed the first reversionary bonus (1781) and interim bonus (1809) among its members. It also used regular valuations to balance competing interests. The Society sought to treat its members equitably and the Directors tried to ensure that policyholders received a fair return on their investments. Premiums were regulated according to age, and anybody could be admitted regardless of their state of health and other circumstances.
Life insurance premiums written in 2005
The sale of life insurance in the U.S. began in the 1760s. The Presbyterian Synods in Philadelphia and New York City created the Corporation for Relief of Poor and Distressed Widows and Children of Presbyterian Ministers in 1759; Episcopalian priests organized a similar fund in 1769. Between 1787 and 1837 more than two dozen life insurance companies were started, but fewer than half a dozen survived. In the 1870s, military officers banded together to found both the Army (AAFMAA) and the Navy Mutual Aid Association (Navy Mutual), inspired by the plight of widows and orphans left stranded in the West after the Battle of the Little Big Horn, and of the families of U.S. sailors who died at sea.