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What’s the best income protection when incomes fluctuate?

Changes in income can be large and happen more often than you may expect. With this in mind advisers need to consider whether to use indemnity or agreed value income protection cover. Russell Hutchinson considers the options.

I have heard advisers argue about income changes a lot – the question is at the heart of the debate about whether or not a client should buy agreed value income protection cover.
Many advisers, and I guess their clients, prefer to take their chances with the ‘best 12 months out of the last three years’ definition. It is generous, and people employed full time can consult their experience and feel that it is unlikely to be a problem. But what exactly are the risks?
OECD data shows that income volatility is large and relatively common. This should affect how we see the choices we have for income protection insurance.
Income volatility is the chance of a change in income of more than 20% includes the ‘risk’ of having your income rise, but with our focus on income protection insurance our interest is in the chances of a decrease in income.
No data was given for New Zealand but two similar economies, the UK and the US, show the risk of a decrease in income of more than 20% are just above 15% for the UK and just below 20% for the US. That’s plenty of risk. But the story doesn’t end there.
The risk rises for certain kinds of people. It is 5% higher just with earning above the average, and it is more than 14% higher for earning in the top quartile (most insurance clients). It is more than 6% higher for someone with poor health (think of loaded lives). It is a whopping 23% higher for someone who is self-employed.
The chance of a big increase is actually slightly higher. This is important because of the ‘best 12 months out of the last three years’ definition for pre-disability income that is common in most indemnity and ‘loss of earnings’ contracts – it is often argued that after ‘one bad year’ things sort themselves out: well the chance of a 20% increase in income in the UK is about 18% and the chance in the US is nearly 30%. But read the other way, there is an 80% chance that their income won’t recover, which isn’t so good.
That doesn’t sound very good. On the other hand we know from recent claims surveys that on average Agreed Value has a pay-out ratio only 1% higher than Indemnity contracts (the category includes contracts we refer to as Loss of Earnings).
Ultimately it comes down to how you rate certain relative risks. If you are more worried about getting a higher claim amount paid if your income falls you should choose Agreed Value, if you are more worried about getting the maximum if you are going to be getting an ACC payment then you would choose Loss of Earnings.
Is there any place left for indemnity cover? Yes, of course, because lots of income volatility or disability due to accident are actually both a minority of claims for class one and two lives. So if you just want the most cost effective cover for most claims then you can choose Indemnity.


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