August 17, 2014


math puzzles
My client’s annual statement for universal life insurance showed a tax-free death benefit of the face amount ($2,000,000) plus the investment returns ($317,079). Do the math and what’s the total? I get $2,317,079. The insurer showed $3,317,079 — an extra million dollars. I contacted them and got a quick response. They’re issuing a letter of apology and a corrected statement.

Luckily, my client didn’t have whole life insurance where the lack of transparency makes mistakes almost impossible to spot.

Big insurers have big resources but even leaders in corporate governance make mistakes. That’s because computers are programmed and the limited testing is generally done internally. The systems are expected to be 100% functional when launched. In contrast, Gmail was in beta for from April 2004 to July 2009.

Time bombs

When I developed products, we focused on launching new offerings. We maximized our resources by delaying work which could be completed later. For launch, we needed
  • marketing tools: an announcement, PowerPoint presentations for the marketing directors to use with advisors, computer-based tools for advisors to prepare proposals for their clients
  • administration support: printing the policy contract (basics like accepting premiums, paying compensation etc were already part of the administration systems and rarely required major modifications)
To speed up times, we minimized printed materials like marketing guides. They looked nice but added costs and created delays. We then had leeway to make “last-minute” changes.

Month-to-month, universal life insurance policies operate much like bank accounts with deposits (premiums, investment returns) and withdrawals (mortality charges, administration charges). The major calculations took place on policy anniversaries. That meant we had almost a year to get ready.

Other capabilities like inforce illustrations (projecting performance after purchase) could be delayed for years. Manual calculations could be done in the interim, if necessary. I once got approval to add two unbudgeted head count. During a hiring freeze. That’s because we could no longer defer some work.

The Human Element

Staff leave. Staff forget. Staff are under pressure to meet deadlines. Miscommunication occurs. Documentation may not be comprehensive enough or clear enough.

Administration systems change. Older products might be on legacy systems. Migrating them to the latest system is much more difficult than upgrading from a version of Windows (see challenges in trying to upgrade to Windows 8 or from 8 to 8.1).

Be Vigilant

Mistakes occur. You might not be sympathetic but you can be vigilant. You don’t need a PhD in mathematics or to be an actuary (though both help). Instead, be a detective. Question what looks odd or what you don’t understand. You’re entitled to ask.


PS Your advisor should be looking for mistakes on your behalf.

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