Everyone likes to get something extra, something for free, a little treat, right? Buy one pair of shoes, get another one half off. Buy a $100 gift card, get another $25 gift card for free. No big deal, right?
But if we’re talking about gifts in connection with the sale of insurance or annuity products, it IS a big deal, and one that can land you in hot water with state insurance regulators. Most insurance departments have published regulations that limit what, if anything, an insurance agent or carrier can give to prospective or existing clients as a gift. Some states have what I call a “zero tolerance” for gifts of any kind that are offered as a means to induce a consumer to purchase an insurance product. In these states, their rules generally state that gifts “of any valuable consideration or inducement not specified in the policy” are prohibited.
Other states have similar wording in their regulations, but they still allow gifts up to a certain limit to be provided, with amounts generally in the $5-50 range per consumer, per year. There are outliers, though. For example, the state of Idaho includes this same wording in their regulations, yet has the highest limit of $200 per person, per year. It’s also important to note that some of the states that do allow certain gifts not only have a monetary limit, but only allow the gifts to be given if they are unrelated to and not dependent on the purchase of insurance.
Whether you call it a rebate, a gift, or an inducement, the basic premise of the rule is the same – state insurance regulators want clients on even footing when it comes to the policies they purchase. To pass the rebate test in most states, any benefit must be expressly stated in the insurance or annuity policy, and provided to everyone who purchases the product. This also helps to ensure that consumers are not influenced to purchase a product primarily because of the gift, and that they have a real need for the product itself.
According to the NAIC Unfair Trade Practices model regulations (Model Reg 880-4(H)(1)),
“Paying, allowing, giving or offering any of the following, if not specified in the contract, is an unfair method of competition and an unfair or deceptive act:
Rebates of premiums payable on the policy; special favors or advantages in the dividends or other benefits; any valuable consideration or inducement not specified in the policy; giving, selling, purchasing or offering, as an inducement, any stocks, bonds or other securities, any dividends or profits accrued, or anything of value not specified in the policy.”
So, what does this mean, especially for insurance agents? What exactly is a rebate? In some states, a rebate means a gift of value, such as cash, a gift card, a fruit basket, or some other tangible gift or object. Other states, however, may consider it a rebate if an agent holds an insurance seminar and serves a nice meal. The cost of that meal, per person, may need to comply with the states’ rebating limits, or the agent runs the risk of a state enforcement action for violating state laws. The same issue may apply with a client appreciation event, such as wine tasting party, golf outing, or other similar events. To determine if the event is in line with their rules, many states will calculate the cost of the event, including all possible variables, such as food, drink, cost of entertainment, etc., and divide it by the number of attendees.
Insurance companies and agents often conduct business in multiple states, so being familiar with and staying current with each states’ position on rebates is important.