Mutual Insurance 101
Hey there! Before we dive into who might receive dividends from a mutual insurer, let’s start with a quick Mutual Insurance 101 refresher. As you may know, mutual insurance companies have a different ownership structure than traditional stock insurance companies. With a mutual insurer, the policyholders are actually the owners of the company. There are no outside shareholders or private investors to please. The company’s primary focus is on serving the long-term interests of its policyholders.
So when times are good and the mutual insurance company performs well financially in areas like investment income, underwriting, and expense management, many will issue dividends to eligible policyholders as a sort of “profit-sharing” program. Now let’s explore exactly how that works…
Participating in the Party
In order to qualify for potential dividends from a mutual insurer, you first need to own a “participating” life insurance policy (or participating annuity in some cases). These types of policies specifically state in the contract that they are eligible to participate in the company’s annual dividend offerings. Think of it as having the golden ticket to the dividend party!
Over 6 million Americans currently own these types of policies with leading mutual life insurers like New York Life, Northwestern Mutual, and Guardian. But be aware – the key word here is “potential” dividends. Mutual companies make zero dividend guarantees. The amount they pay from year to year fluctuates based on that year’s financial performance. However, once declared, dividends are typically paid and credited toward your policy values or cash accumulated depending on your preference.
Following the Funds
So where do these magical mutual insurance dividends originate? It starts with something called “divisible surplus.” This is the pot of money leftover after the insurer sets aside what it needs to hold in reserve to meet future expected claims, expenses, and other liabilities. Anything above and beyond that is considered fair game for eligible policyholders.
The size of this divisible surplus pot in a given year boils down to three key factors:
If less policyholder death claims occurred than expected, more funds are likely available to pay dividends. Morbid but true! This speaks to the importance of the underwriting process.
If the company spends less on operating expenses than budgeted for, the leftover money can pad the divisible surplus. Run a tight ship!
If investments backing the policy reserves perform better than the guaranteed rates, the “extra” income may help pay dividends.
The mutual company’s Board of Directors reviews these factors annually and votes on that year’s declared dividend interest rate and amount available for payout.
Comparing the Cousins
Now that you understand the special dividend-paying relationship between mutual insurance companies and their policyholders, let’s compare it to what goes on across the family fence with stock life insurance companies.
The key difference here is the ownership structure and corporate priorities. Stock companies are owned by external shareholders and investors – not the policyholders themselves. The priority is to maximize value for these stockholders rather than policyholders.
While they have more flexibility to raise capital, stock companies tend to keep lower cash reserves on hand. And policyholders have no voting rights or guaranteed cut of the profits. Surplus dividends only get paid out to shareholders in the form of stock dividends or increased share price appreciation.
So while stock companies offer solid life insurance policies, if you want to get in on some of that dividend action, mutual companies are the way to go!
Can Policyholders Receive Dividends From a Mutual Insurer Directly?
Occasionally, you may hear about a process called “demutualization” in insurance company news. This is when a mutual insurer decides to change its ownership structure to a stock company format. Often this happens to gain better access to capital which can help them grow faster through things like acquisitions.
The implications if this happens to a mutual insurer you are a policyholder of? Well, firstly, your policy itself and guarantees within it are unaffected. It will mostly operate business as usual. However, some policyholders may receive stock in exchange for giving up their membership rights. And in the longer run, a now publically-owned company may shift focus more towards share price and short term profits.
Over 20+ mutual life insurers have gone this route since the 1990s, so while not extremely common, it is good to be aware of the possibility.
We’ve covered a lot here today! To quickly recap:
- Mutual insurance companies are owned by policyholders and aim to serve their long-term interests
- Eligible policyholders can receive annual dividends from the company’s surplus
- Key factors determining the dividend amount include mortality, expenses, and investment income
- Stock companies focus more on shareholder value and do not pay dividends to policyholders
- Demutualization shifts the company to public ownership and stock dividends
The only folks receiving dividends directly from a mutual insurer are typically those policyholders that own participating policies. It’s a unique perk worth understanding if considering one of these products.
I hope this overview gave you some clarity on how mutual insurance dividends work! Let me know if any other questions come to mind.