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Financial stability is an important consideration for long-term coverage

Sift through life insurance companies to find the most financially secure and customer-oriented, and a handful of good companies rise to the top -- but Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance edges past them all.

Northwestern Mutual hits all the high notes: This insurance company earns top financial ratings (with the highest possible grade at four of the five ratings agencies and a very high A-minus at Weiss Ratings); great customer reviews, including an extremely small number of customer complaints with state insurance regulators; and an A-plus rating from the Better Business Bureau, of which it's a member. It's also one of the biggest life insurance companies in the country -- fourth in size according to the Insurance Information Institute. Northwestern Mutual is also a full-service life insurance company, offering just about any life insurance product you want -- including term life insurance, several types of permanent life insurance and hybrid policies that combine the two.

Northwestern Mutual has been in business since 1857, and it has proven impressively reliable over the long haul: It's one of only a handful of life insurance companies that has maintained a financial rating of A or better at A.M. Best for 75 years in a row. And its customers are pleased: According to the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, Northwestern Mutual's 2012 complaint index (its number of complaints per individual life insurance policy) was 1/32 of the national median -- the tiniest fraction of complaints of any life insurance company with top financial ratings.

If your broker or agent doesn't represent top-rated Northwestern Mutual, or you are insurance quote shopping, Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Co. (aka Mass Mutual) is a top alternative that rates nearly as high. Customer complaints are as rare, and Mass Mutual also earns an A-plus rating from the Better Business Bureau. It has been in business a bit longer than Northwestern Mutual (since 1851), and it has spent 50 years at the top of A.M. Best's insurance ratings. Mass Mutual is one of the financially strongest life insurance companies at Weiss Ratings -- the strictest of the ratings agencies, according to ConsumerReports.org -- and it earns a better rating there than Northwestern Mutual (A vs. A-minus for the latter). Mass Mutual's ratings at Moody's and Standard & Poor's are just one tick below the top. Mass Mutual is the fifth-biggest life insurer in the U.S., just ahead of Northwestern Mutual.

Other highly rated life insurers to consider

Three more life insurance companies just barely missed the cut to qualify as a best-reviewed pick: TIAA-CREF, New York Life and Guardian. TIAA-CREF isn't just for teachers anymore. Despite its name (which stands for Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association and College Retirement Equities Fund), TIAA-CREF now offers its highly rated life insurance policies to the general public. Like the top-rated insurers, TIAA-CREF is one of the biggest life insurers in the U.S. (it's No. 4), with superb scores from all five major financial raters, an A-plus at the Better Business Bureau and very few customer complaints.

New York Life nearly sweeps the financial ratings, only missing an all-around perfect score because it gets an A-minus at Weiss instead of an A. It's one of the most financially sound life insurance companies in the U.S., with very high customer ratings -- although not quite as high as Northwestern Mutual or Mass Mutual. New York Life posts a B rating at the Better Business Bureau for its headquarters location (it gets knocked down for failure to answer two complaints).

Guardian Life Insurance Co. of America has ranked near the top of A.M. Best's financial-strength charts for 50 years, and it's one of Weiss Ratings' best life insurance companies. Guardian's grades at other financial raters (Fitch, Moody's and Standard & Poor's) are also very high, and its Better Business Bureau accreditation and lack of complaints at the National Association of Insurance Commissioners show high customer satisfaction.

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