The Philadelphia insurer Lincoln Financial Group is carving itself a niche in helping banking companies and other financial service providers set up estate plans for wealthy customers.

Since buying Cigna Holdings' financial planning business in 1998, the insurer has established relationships with several banks looking for insurance know-how when setting up trusts for customers with $1 million and more in investable assets.

Banks benefit from Lincoln's inside-out knowledge of mortality, which enables the insurer to anticipate all the possible outcomes for asset distribution, according to Jon A. Boscia, the president and chief executive officer. "No one deals with incidents of death more than an insurance company," he pointed out.

For example, when setting up an estate plan where the majority of the wealth is contained in a business, the idea is preserve the wealth created by the business and pass it on to the beneficiaries, without having to liquidate the company and put people out of work, he said. And Lincoln can underwrite an insurance policy if the plan requires one, he added.

There are clear synergies between banking companies and insurers, Mr. Boscia said. Banks have the exclusive rights to offer FDIC insurance on deposits up to $100,000, while insurers have the exclusive right to offer mortality insurance, he said.

"What are people worried about? Outliving retirement savings and dying too soon," he said. Thus, it makes sense for banks and insurers to work together and even merge under the green light provided by the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, he added. However, low stock prices may slow down dealmaking, he said, because they mean less currency and more caution on the part of both banks and insurance companies.

"As an acquirer we would be looking for someone with strong trust capabilities," Mr. Boscia said. For now, however, Lincoln is content just to develop working relationships with banking companies, he said.

The company is working with about 10 banking companies, including FleetBoston Financial Corp and SunTrust Banks Inc.

"We start off by offering to do the CEO's financial plan," Mr. Boscia said. Then, if the CEO is impressed, Lincoln moves on to the bank's clients.

Mr. Boscia, a former banker with Mellon Financial Corp., said it will probably be hard to expand beyond 15 bank relationships because of the difficulty signing up competing banks in the same region.

"The biggest issue is determining which banks to form relationships with," Mr. Boscia said.

But Lincoln isn't stopping at banks and provides the same service to a number of high-profile broker-dealers that offer trust services, among them Morgan Stanley Dean Witter & Co. and Salomon Smith Barney, a unit of Citigroup Inc.

And the estate planning business complements Lincoln's distribution of insurance products and mutual funds through the bank channel.

Its Lincoln Life Distributors unit sells life insurance as well as variable and fixed annuities to six large banking companies, including Citigroup, Chase Manhattan Corp., and First Union Corp., said a spokeswoman.

Lincoln's First Penn-Pacific Life Insurance Co. unit sells term life and fixed annuities to more than 200 community and regional banks.

And its Delaware Investments unit, with $100 billion under management, sells mutual funds and variable annuities to midsize and large banking companies, including Wachovia Corp.

Delaware expects to make about $500 million in mutual fund and variable annuity sales through banks this year, up from $300 million in 1999, the spokeswoman said. There were no estimates available for Lincoln Life or First Penn-Pacific Life.

On the estate planning side, Lincoln charges an average fee of $3,500 per estate plan, though the fee can vary depending on several factors, including its complexity and the assets under management.

Lincoln may have carved a niche for itself in what observers called a limited market.

"A lot of banks have insurance experts," said Carmen Effron of C.F. Effron in Westport, Conn. "To have an outside firm do that, it's little unusual."

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