TIAA-CREF Insurance Review & Complaints: Life Insurance & Annuities

TIAA-CREF is one of the largest providers of employer-sponsored retirement plans and life insurance, specializing in retirement policies for the academic and medical fields. TIAA-CREF is a major Fortune 500 company operating as a not-for-profit. Read our TIAA-CREF review to find free TIAA-CREF life insurance quotes.

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Eric Stauffer is a former insurance agent and banker turned consumer advocate. His priority is to help educate individuals and families about the different types of insurance they need, and assist them in finding the best place to get it.

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Written by Eric Stauffer
Founder & Former Insurance Agent Eric Stauffer

Leslie Kasperowicz holds a BA in Social Sciences from the University of Winnipeg. She spent several years as a Farmers Insurance CSR, gaining a solid understanding of insurance products including home, life, auto, and commercial and working directly with insurance customers to understand their needs. She has since used that knowledge in her more than ten years as a writer, largely in the insuranc...

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Reviewed by Leslie Kasperowicz
Farmers CSR for 4 Years Leslie Kasperowicz

UPDATED: Jun 1, 2022

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Financial Strength

Originally created to provide retirement funds for teachers, the TIAA-CREF Life Insurance Company has since grown to be a huge force in the financial services world, in spite of being one of the less recognizable names. Certainly, TIAA-CREF is well known in the circles where they provide the greatest portion of their services.

TIAA-CREF is focused on retirement planning and quality life insurance, and is one of the largest companies providing employer-sponsored retirement savings plans in their particular market. As a non-profit, they share surplus with their customers through annuities, and create an image of helpfulness and service to their customers, who are most often working for nonprofits and educational institutions.

This image fits with a company that helps those who care for others and gives back their surplus profits to those very people.

What is TIAA-CREF?

TIAA-CREF stands for Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association – College Retirement Equities Fund. It was founded in 1918 in New York to provide lifelong income in retirement for professors through annuities, replacing the old Carnegie Foundation pension system that was no longer able to provide enough funds to cover the community’s need for financial security. The company survived the Great Depression with careful investment decisions and, by1933, counted Albert Einstein among its plan participants.

In 1950, in response to inflation, the company introduced the first variable annuity products, using common stocks to bolster retirement savings. The new fund was named the College Retirement Equities Fund, adding the CREF to the TIAA name. This new investment option would eventually become one of the more popular choices in annuities, and this lesser-known company pioneered it.

In the 1970s, the company expanded into global investments, starting in Japan. They have also expanded beyond teachers to provide retirement services and life insurance to those in fields, including academics, government, research, medical, and eventually to the public.

This year, TIAA-CREF ranked at number 80 on the Fortune 500 list, and at number 291 on the Global 500 list. They were ranked as the 4th largest life insurance business by assets in the United States as of 2015. For such a large company, they remain less known than their major competitors and stand out from the crowd because they are not-for-profit.

Products are sold through financial consultants in local offices that work directly for the company, both to individuals and to employers, who provide financial consulting as well as assistance setting up retirement savings plans, providing financial advice & planning services, and selecting life insurance and annuities. Life insurance products can be purchased directly, with online quoting and purchasing available. They don’t use independent agents or brokers, and this helps to keep rates down as we’ll see later in the review. A wide variety of life insurance protection options are available across the entire United States.

As of the creation of the TIAA-CREF Life Insurance Company in 1999, policies are available to the public and not just to the niche market the company has always marketed towards. Much of their business is still in that niche, however, particularly through employer-offered benefits.

TIAA-CREF’s profits go mainly into keeping the company financially strong, but are also used to make disbursements into traditional annuity accounts held by customers.

TIAA-CREF has won multiple awards, including for workplace diversity, and was the first Fortune 500 company to have an African-American CEO. Fortune also named them one of the World’s Most Admired Companies. They are also involved in many charities, including supporting schools – in keeping with their beginnings as a financial company for teachers.

Currently, the company’s head office remains in New York, but they also have major offices in Denver, Charlotte, and Dallas, as well as smaller offices in all the states they serve, about 70 offices in total. Online quoting is available for term life insurance, and products can be considered direct-buy since they use in-house financial professionals and not agents or brokers to sell products.

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What are the different policy types to choose from?

TIAA-CREF is more focused on retirement and financial planning services than on insurance. The only insurance products the company writes are TIAA life insurance, as well as annuities, which cross the line between life insurance contracts and investment products. Their overall product lineup is aimed at helping people to set up a financial plan for retirement and beyond, to ensure a lifelong income as well as a legacy for the family.

Life Insurance

Life insurance policies are sold through TIAA-CREF Life Insurance Company. Not all life insurance coverage or products are available in all states, but most can be purchased nationwide. TIAA-CREF writes two main types of life insurance: term life coverage and universal life coverage. Within those two categories are a few other different plan types of insurance as well. They don’t write traditional whole life policies, offering universal as their permanent plans option instead.

Although the website doesn’t offer a ton of details on the life insurance products, they do have a lot of educational tools and resources to help customers with the process of comparing and selecting a life insurance protection policy.

Term Life

Term life is available with a benefit amount of $100,000 to $1 million. Coverage is available for 10, 15, 20, or 30 years. These policies offer coverage for a period of time when it is most needed at the level and at affordable premiums. They are designed to provide coverage for those who require a higher death benefit during a specific period of time without the higher cost of permanent life insurance rates.

Annual Renewal Term Life

These policies are designed for those who need short-term coverage with the option to renew it as needed. These policies are in place for one year at a time and can be renewed at the end of each year. TIAA-CREF renews the policy each year without the requirement for a medical exam.

Universal Life

It provides permanent life insurance coverage with flexible premiums. TIAA-CREF also offers flexible face – value options for policyholders, making their universal life insurance policies a good choice for changing needs over time. Cash accumulation accounts are part of this type of policy, allowing policyholders to create an extra investment.

Universal Life with Long-Term Care

Provide all the benefits of a universal life insurance policy with the additional benefits of a long-term care endorsement. That gives the coverage of two policies in one, as most companies sell long-term care separately. These policies include coverage for things like:

  • Adult day care
  • Assisted living
  • Home care
  • Hospice care
  • Nursing home costs

Variable Universal Life

These variable life insurance policies have added investment opportunities to standard Universal life. These policies include all the benefits of permanent life insurance coverage, and also offer over 60 different investment options for the cash account to allow more growth opportunities.


TIAA-CREF offers a variety of annuities to provide long-term income in retirement. Pretax and tax-deferred contributions make these investments a stable choice.

CREF Variable Annuities were the first variable annuities in the world and are still available today with several options. CREF has eight diversified accounts to choose from for investment purposes.

TIAA Real Estate Accounts are a variable annuity choice that invests directly in commercial real estate. Assets can be either transferred or withdrawn each quarter if desired.

TIAA Traditional Annuities are basic, fixed annuities. They offer a guaranteed minimum interest rate.

TIAA Stable Value Annuities have a separate account, earn a guaranteed minimum interest rate, and allow for transfers and withdrawals.


TIAA-CREF offers a variety of choices for investment in IRAs for retirement savings. IRA types available include:

  • ROTH
  • Traditional
  • SEP
  • Simple

Mutual Funds

Investment in a variety of different types of mutual funds is offered to help individuals reach their financial goals and save for the future. Mutual fund choices include:

  • U.S. Equities
  • International Equities
  • Fixed Income
  • Lifestyle Funds
  • Asset Allocation
  • Money Markets

College Savings

TIAA-CREF offers investments for college through tax-deferred 529 college savings plans.

Retirement Plans

In addition to individual retirement plan options such as IRAs and annuities, TIAA-CREF offers employer-sponsored and small business retirement plan options.

Employer-sponsored plans are one of the company’s biggest programs, and they serve more than 15,000 institutions including colleges and universities, research centers, medical centers, and others.

The main part of these is defined contribution plans, in which the employer enters their contribution for each employee. These plans allow employers to determine a selection of investment choices and contribution schedules but give employees the freedom to make investment choices and determine how benefits will be taken.

Contributions are pre-tax and there are annual limits on contributions. Flexible plan options allow each employee to create a plan that will provide lifelong income in retirement.

Supplemental Retirement Plans are also available for each employee to add additional contributions and grow retirement savings further.

Small Business Retirement plans are also available, offering a variety of IRAs and Keogh plans. These are designed to help small business owners provide tax-deferred retirement savings for both their employees and for themselves.

Other Products

In addition to these financial products, TIAA-CREF can assist with a variety of other financial planning services. Additional offerings include managed account and brokerage services, as well as banking and even home loan services. These round out the product and service lineup to create a fairly comprehensive financial planning program that suits nearly anyone.

Who Can Buy From TIAA-CREF?

Being a niche company that has traditionally marketed its products towards particular groups can leave people confused about whether they are eligible for products from a company like TIAA-CREF. It’s worth taking a moment to make that clear.

TIAA-CREF sells its financial planning products mainly to those within a specific list of industries, as noted in this review above. Most of those products are sold through employers, but individuals can buy or invest in what is offered through employers. Although the company originally worked with very specific customer groups, that is no longer the case.

TIAA-CREF offers a wide range of investment and retirement products to the public. They also write life insurance for the public, both term and universal, and annuities as well.

The company remains very closely associated with their niche market, and a large portion of their customers come from this base. Unlike a company like USAA, however, there is no specific list of membership criteria or requirements for where you are employed in order to purchase products from this company.

So, while they are indeed in a niche market, they are not limited to that market and anyone can purchase the majority of their products. Therefore, there is no need to write them off your list simply because you don’t work in one of the listed fields, everyone is welcome.

Is the TIAA a Nonprofit Organization?

Yes, but it has for-profit subsidiaries, all of whose profits go to policyholders. Such an organization came into being after Congress stripped the TIAA of its tax-exempt status in the Taxpayer Relief Act of 1997. 

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Is a TIAA-CREF Plan the Same as a 401(k)?

No, though there are some similarities. Both are defined-contribution plans, but a 401(k) is designed to provide supplemental income in retirement and attempts to maximize the funds in it, while a TIAA plan is intended to provide a guaranteed lifetime annual income by annuitizing the money in the plan, making the amount saved less important.

Is the website and app simple to use?

TIAA has a huge website. There are six main topic links on the main page for the public: bank, borrow, buy, sell, invest, and about TIA. There are different pages for advisors (who help people) and consultants (who sell things).

There are also specific pages for TIAA CREF URMC ( University of Rochester Medical Center ) and TIAA CREF Yale retirement benefits. The TIAA intranet is accessible from any of these pages which all have a “log in” button.

With the company’s app, you can access your TIAA statements and upload documents with ease. The app is rated a 4.5 on Google Play.  

Are the life insurance rates competitive?

TIAA life insurance offers a very simple and quick quoting service for life insurance products. The system requires slightly more information than some, asking for height and weight, but a little less information than others. It’s easy to use and returns a rate after only one screen and a few questions. There is also not a request for any personal or contact information, so you’re unlikely to receive a lot of solicitation from the company, which is important for many insurance shoppers.

Our rate test brings this company in at slightly lower premiums than the life insurance rates we have seen at other companies.

A $1,000,000 20-year term life insurance policy for a 30-year-old nonsmoking male in California comes out to $44.63 a month. This rate is directly in line with our rate tests in previous years and keeps the company at just over 5% below the average rate for this particular policy.

A base-level 10-year term policy at $100,000 for the same person comes in at $9.11, which is a very good price even for such a basic policy.

Of course, as with all such life insurance quotes, actual premiums can vary greatly based on medical history and any lifestyle issues that may come up during the application process.

TIAA life insurance doesn’t offer any quotes for other types of insurance, just their term insurance, which is pretty standard for most such insurance companies, although some do offer whole life quotes – a product this company doesn’t write. Universal life generally has a more complex quoting and application process, and it’s not unusual for insurance companies not to offer online quotes for these policies.

TIAA-CREF doesn’t pay commissions to their representatives, simply paying them a salary instead, which means those commissions won’t affect premium prices. That also helps to keep rates lower, and it shows. You also know that you can trust the insurance product recommendation you get from your agent, since they are paid to help you instead of based on their sales performance.

Overall, pricing is very reasonable and a little under average, making TIAA-CREF a good value for life insurance. It’s not the least expensive life insurance on the market, but when it comes to purchasing insurance the premium is far from the only factor. Great customer services and backing of products are equally, if not more important, so we’ll take a look at TIAA-CREF’s reputation next in this review.

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Can claims be filed online?

There is no option for filing a claim online. Although this has become standard for most major insurance companies for auto and home insurance claims, few companies offer this service for life insurance. These claims tend to be more delicate in nature and, as a result, most insurance companies accept claims only over the phone or through an agent; TIAA-CREF is certainly not alone there.

That said, it is very difficult to locate the appropriate line to call for claims on the website – we found it on a brochure after searching for claim information on Google. This is something that we would like to see rectified, as the last thing anyone should have to deal with when already dealing with the death of a loved one is a hunt for the right phone number to begin the claim.

At the risk of repetition, that’s again not particularly unusual for a life insurance company. Since claims are not nearly as frequent as with auto or home, many companies don’t have a claims section or page on their website. However, easier access to the phone number would be nice; hopefully, clients are provided with that information, but might still find it hard to locate in a time of difficulty.

There is no information on the website that we could find on how claims are handled or the length of time for processing, again not unusual for life insurance. That said, the site, in general, is overwhelming and difficult to navigate, so it’s possible the information is there but not easily accessible. Again, a cleaner appearance and easier to navigate website would be helpful, if a bit of a small issue.

Are there consumer complaints against the company?

TIAA-CREF is not Better Business Bureau accredited, but they carry an A+ rating. There are 45 complaints on record against the company in the past three years, 18 of which were closed in the past 12 months. That is a low number of complaints for such a big company, however, it is in line with what we generally see with life insurance and financial services companies.

Life insurance companies in general tend to see fewer complaints because they have less interaction with customers and claims are not as frequent. Add to that the fact that many of this company’s products are sold through employers, and that leads to even fewer complaints, at least online, since people generally approach their HR department when they have problems rather than complaining online.

That said, you’d be hard-pressed to find much at all in the way of complaints about this company; usually, there are at least a few people complaining about service. TIAA-CREF seems to have one of the cleanest reputations we have seen for any large insurance company.

As a side note, we weren’t able to dig up much in the way of positive reviews from consumers either, but that’s not much of a surprise – happy people don’t write Internet reviews for the most part. We did, however, find the company popping up on recommended lists from multiple different sources in terms of professional advice for insurance and financial services. That’s very encouraging to see and certainly cements the company’s positive impression.

TIAA-CREF didn’t appear on any of the rating comparison lists showing rankings of major life insurance companies, which is surprising; still, the overall impression is positive enough to feel pretty confident in this company.

What’s the bottom line?

Is TIAA-CREF good? TIAA-CREF has a distinguished history, a strong financial rating, and has very few complaints to speak of. While they are one of the less recognized names in life insurance and financial services, they have a reputation that is as good, if not better than most, and have a comprehensive product lineup.

With excellent rates and a strong program, as well as surplus returned to customers through traditional annuities thanks to the company’s nonprofit status, they are well worth considering for anyone. Even more so for anyone who works in the fields towards which the company has catered for nearly 100 years.

Those being offered benefits through an employer for this company should feel pretty confident in their investment capabilities, and they are also a solid choice for life insurance. Although they don’t stand next to the other big names like MetLife and Prudential in terms of fame, they certainly do compete well in terms of products, service, and price. If you’re shopping around for life insurance or a reputable company to help with retirement planning, and particularly if you are a part of their target niche market, TIAA-CREF should definitely be on the list.

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