The Role of Underwriting in Life Insurance


Underwriting is the backbone of the life insurance industry, playing a critical role in risk assessment and management. This process ensures that insurance companies maintain financial stability and policyholders receive fair treatment. According to a report by Statista, around 60% of life insurance policies in the United States in 2020 were subject to full medical underwriting. The role of underwriting is crucial in setting appropriate premium rates and defining policy terms based on the individual risk profile of each applicant. In doing so, it ensures the continuity and growth of the insurance market. In fact, according to a report by Statista, the global life insurance premiums amounted to approximately 2.9 trillion U.S dollars in 2019, illustrating the scale and significance of the industry. The following article delves into the significant role of underwriting in life insurance, outlining its process, impact, and importance in the global insurance landscape.

Understanding the Fundamentals of Underwriting in Life Insurance

Underwriting in life insurance is the process of evaluating an application to determine the applicant’s risk profile and eligibility for a policy. It involves assessing the applicant’s health and financial information using underwriting guidelines based on mortality statistics. This aids the company in offering competitive insurance coverage, maintaining equity among policyholders, and providing coverage to a diverse group of individuals. The underwriting process is divided into two parts: financial underwriting, which ensures the coverage aligns with the applicant’s needs, and medical underwriting, which evaluates factors affecting the applicant’s mortality.

Key steps in the underwriting process include:

  • Collection of Information: Gathering basic details about the applicant’s health, lifestyle, and financial ability.
  • Risk Assessment: Using the collected information to determine the risk profile of the applicant.
  • Financial Underwriting: Evaluating the applicant’s financial situation to ensure the coverage amount aligns with their needs.
  • Medical Underwriting: Assessing the applicant’s health and other factors that might impact their mortality.
  • Policy Issuance: Deciding whether to issue the policy as applied for or make changes based on the applicant’s risk profile.
  • Premium Calculation: Determining the premium rates based on the underwriting evaluation.

According to a recent report by PwC, the global life insurance market is expected to reach $791.6 billion by 2026. A critical factor contributing to this growth is underwriting, which plays an indispensable role in life insurance. 

Underwriting not only determines the risks associated with an insurance policy but also aids in setting appropriate premium rates.In turn, this ensures the financial health of insurance companies by minimizing potential losses and maintaining the overall balance of the insurance market.

The Process of Underwriting in Life Insurance

The underwriting process in life insurance is a critical component of the insurance business model. As per the Swiss Re Institute’s sigma study, approximately 70% of life insurance policies worldwide are underwritten, highlighting its significance. Here is a step-by-step breakdown of the process:

  • Application Review: This is the initial stage where the underwriter reviews the application form filled by the prospective policyholder. They scrutinize the details provided, which include personal information, health history, lifestyle choices, and occupation.
  • Medical Examination: Depending on the policy and the insurer’s guidelines, the applicant may need to undergo a medical examination. The results provide a more accurate picture of the applicant’s health status and allow the underwriter to assess risks more precisely.
  • Risk Assessment: At this stage, the underwriter assesses the risk associated with providing insurance coverage to the applicant. This assessment is based on multiple factors, including age, health condition, lifestyle habits, and occupation. The underwriter uses these details to determine the likelihood of the insured party making a claim.
  • Policy Approval: If the underwriter finds the risk to be acceptable, they proceed to approve the policy. At this point, they also set the premium rate, which is directly proportional to the perceived risk – higher the risk, higher the premium.
  • Policy Issuance: Once the underwriting process is complete and the policy is approved, the insurance policy is issued to the applicant. This marks the beginning of the insurance contract.

Impact of Underwriting Decisions on Policy Premiums and Terms

Underwriting is a critical process in the insurance industry. It involves evaluating risks and exposures of potential clients, determining the appropriate premiums, and setting the terms and conditions of the insurance contract. The decisions made during underwriting directly influence the policy premiums and terms, thereby affecting not only the profitability of the insurer but also the affordability and suitability of the policy for the insured.

Impact on Policy Premiums

Policy premiums are primarily determined by the level of risk associated with insuring the potential client. During the underwriting process, underwriters assess this risk based on various factors such as the client’s age, health condition, occupation, lifestyle habits, and more.

If a client is deemed to be high risk, the underwriter may decide to charge a higher premium. For example, in life insurance, smokers or individuals with chronic illnesses are typically charged higher premiums because they pose a higher risk to the insurer.

On the other hand, if a client is considered low risk, they may benefit from lower premiums. For instance, a young, healthy individual with a safe occupation would typically pay less for life insurance compared to an older individual with multiple health issues.

Impact on Policy Terms

Underwriting decisions also significantly influence the terms and conditions of an insurance policy. If an underwriter identifies certain exclusions or limitations during the risk assessment, these will be incorporated into the policy terms.

For example, a health insurance policy may exclude coverage for pre-existing conditions identified during underwriting. Similarly, a home insurance policy may have special terms or exclusions for homes located in flood-prone areas.

In some cases, if the risk is too high, an underwriter may decline coverage altogether. Alternatively, they may offer coverage but with modified terms, such as a higher deductible or policy limits.


In conclusion, underwriting is at the heart of the insurance industry, particularly in life insurance. It shapes the risk profile of potential clients, sets policy premiums and terms, and ensures the sustainability of insurance companies. It also impacts the affordability and suitability of the insurance for the insured.

However, underwriting faces challenges in risk assessment and pricing premiums appropriately. As the insurance market evolves, underwriting practices must adapt to meet changing needs.

Despite its complexity, underwriting’s key role in protecting the financial health of insurance companies and policyholders is undeniable. 

According to Deloitte, 87% of insurance executives plan to increase their use of advanced analytics, signaling a future of more efficient and precise underwriting (Deloitte).

Therefore, underwriting stands as a cornerstone of the insurance industry, contributing significantly to its growth and development.

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