The life insurance landscape is confusing, to put it lightly. One can get lost in the different types of policies and terminologies, such as whole life, term life, cash value, variable life, and a lot more. If you want to purchase life insurance, you need to first understand the different types, how they work, their cost and which type is right for you and your lifestyle. They fall under four basic types: term, whole, universal and variable.
But how do you make sense of all the different types to ensure that you are picking the correct and best one? Here’s a quick breakdown of the four most common types of insurance policies.
Types of Life Insurance
There are two time-frames over which you can buy life insurance – a stated term or the rest of your life. Insurance that provides benefits over a stated term is known as term life. Permanent life policies provide benefits for the rest of your life (as long as you continue to make premium payments). There are three common types of permanent life insurance – whole life, universal life and variable life.
Term Life Insurance
Term life protects the insured for a pre-determined number of years which is usually any period from 10, 15, 20 or 30 years. The length of time the insurance is in effect is the “term” of the policy. When the term ends, the policy can be renewed on an annual basis as long as the premium is paid. Most insurance companies allow the policy owner to renew until the age of 95, after which point the probability of dying is so high as to make the cost of the insurance almost the same as the death benefit. The life insurance offered by employers is usually term life with a term of one year.
Term life is the most popular type of life insurance and the most affordable. Many financial advisors recommend that you buy term life insurance instead of whole life insurance and use the money you save to invest. But remember that this is a piece of general advice and not specific because you should first consider your own needs and personal situation. What product is most appropriate for you will depend on many things.
Here are the main strengths of term life insurance.
Life insurance will provide cash for your beneficiary so your family can deal with the negative financial consequences of your death. Term life insurance policies are very flexible in that they easily adjust to the policyholder’s needs.
Beneficiaries do not pay income taxes on death benefits from life insurance. If the policy is properly owned, the death benefits can also be free from estate taxes.
Whole Life Insurance
When you buy traditional whole life insurance, the death benefit and the premium stay the same throughout the term of the policy. As indicated in the name, the term of a whole life is your entire life or until you stop paying the premium.
As you get older, the probability that the death benefit will be paid increases leading to increases in the amount of premium needed to pay for the death benefit (as would be seen in the premium increases you would pay if you bought a series of one-year term life insurance policies). You can imagine that the cost gets very high if you live to 80 years old or more. The insurance company could just assign a premium for term life insurance that goes up each year but it will come to a point that it will be very expensive for people at advanced ages.
Under a whole life policy, the insurance companies keep the premium level by charging a premium that is higher in the early years. This premium is more than what they need to pay claims when you are younger so they invest the money and use it to help pay the cost of insurance as you get older while keeping the premium level.
The main advantages of whole life insurance are as follows.
Lifetime Guaranteed Insurance
With whole life, the insurance company guarantees a premium amount that you have to pay. This means that this amount will stay the same for the rest of your life and will not increase. You can also rest assured that your loved ones/beneficiaries will receive a guaranteed, lump-sum payment at the time of your demise. You may also choose your business to be a beneficiary if you want.
Cash Value Accumulation
Aside from having life insurance for life, whole life also allows you to build a significant cash asset, as the insurance company sets aside a portion of the premium in an account. What’s more, your cash asset under a whole life policy is not going to be dependent on the ups and downs of the market at any time. You can also borrow against the cash value portion of your whole life policy. So, in case you need money for other things in the future such as payment for a home, college funding or a business loan, you’ll have a ready source of borrowing.
Whole life insurance carries with it numerous tax benefits, one of which is the tax-advantaged buildup of cash value. Also, many whole life policies provide dividends representing a portion of the insurance company’s profits that are paid to policyholders. Whole life insurance dividends may be guaranteed or non-guaranteed depending on the policy. The good thing is that even if you are accumulating dividends on the policy, you can defer paying the tax for them. This feature is one of the reasons that make whole life slightly more expensive than both term and universal policies. But take note that the policy is not flexible like the others.
Universal Life Insurance
Universal life falls under the umbrella of permanent life insurance options. It provides more flexibility than whole life.
There are three main components of universal life.
You can choose from 2 options when determining how you want the beneficiary to receive the death benefits:
• Type A Death Benefit or Level Death Benefit. It’s up to you to pick a level of the death benefit, one that starts off as a single amount and stays level or the same for the life of the policy, regardless of its cash value.
• Type B Death Benefit: The other option is a combination of a specific death benefit and then the insurance company adds the cash value accumulation feature that accumulates over the life of the policy.
The Cash Value Portion
The insurance company allocates a portion of your premiums to an interest-crediting strategy of your choosing. In the basic form of Universal Life, interest is credited at a fixed rate by the insurance company. Some policies, known as Variable Life as discussed below, allow people to invest in mutual funds.
The owner of a universal life policy has the option to pay as much or as little premium above a stated minimum. Although this flexibility attracts many insurance customers, a good percentage find it confusing at the same time. In term life insurance, you pay a certain amount every month or every year and you already know what the death benefit will be. But here, the shifting balances of premiums and death benefits are more complicated than what the majority of people need. Plus, it comes with the same extra costs as other permanent policies.
Another major difference between universal life and whole life policies is that policyholders of universal life can pay the premiums as they desire. However, in order to remain active, the policy must have sufficient available cash value to pay for the cost of insurance.
This isn’t something that you can do with a whole life policy because you can’t change the premiums to suit your present economic situation.
Variable Life Insurance
Variable life is similar to whole life with a different treatment of the cash value component.
In whole life and universal life policies, the fund managers keep the cash value component in a savings account. Although the growth is small when compared to other investment options, there is an assurance of the minimum rate guaranteed by the insurer. The insurance company also makes dividend payments from time to time.
Investment of Cash Value
When it comes to variable life, you’d imagine that it is some type of investment vehicle. The funds are in a mutual fund-like sub-accounts where there is potential for bigger growth. But there’s also the possibility of losing money depending on how the market behaves. The insurance company places the cash value in the stock market. Unlike universal life insurance policies, the insurer of a variable life insurance policy does not guarantee that your cash value won’t decrease.
If you are seeking higher, tax-deferred growth, variable life insurance policies are better investment options than whole life policies because they are like a “super-IRA.” However, you can only invest in the sub-accounts that are available through your policy. You don’t have the option to choose from the wide variety of mutual funds that are on the open market.
While premiums for a variable life can be lower than whole life, it is riskier since the company invests in the stock market. Many people don’t know much about the stock market and don’t know how to properly manage the funds to adjust to the market conditions. An average person won’t have the necessary skills or experience to do it effectively. These features limit a variable life insurance policy as an investment option and as a life insurance choice. The limits on investment choices is common to all permanent policy types.
The premium for a term life insurance policy is less than the premium for a whole life policy in the first several years you own it. As you get older, you are increasingly likely to die so the premium for term life insurance increases and eventually become more expensive than if you were paying for a whole life policy you started buying when you were younger.
Cost of Term Life Policies
You might think that it is a disadvantage to choosing term life. After all, you have to die first to receive money (which does not go to you at all). Every year you will have to keep paying insurance premiums so you can protect your family. The premiums are affordable so you won’t have problems making the payments. But here is where some people can’t reconcile the cost and the benefit: when the 20 years go by and the insured is still alive. The insurance company does not give back anything. The truth is, this is a fair deal because the low premium you are paying only accounts for the death benefit you will get in case you die during the term of the policy.
Cost of Permanent Policies
In contrast, if you had purchased a permanent policy, you could keep it forever. And if you opted to stop in 20 years, the insurance company would likely give you back a portion of the premiums you have paid. When you account for the dividends you’ve received, there is a chance that you’ll get back all your premiums at that point. There is no guarantee that the policy will pay dividends so the insurance companies will not include them in their projections.
In the early years, permanent policies are more expensive than term policies so you would have to consider how much you are able (or are willing) to pay when you choose your life insurance.
About Baruch Silvermann
Baruch Silvermann is a personal finance expert, investor for more than 15 years, digital marketer and founder of The Smart Investor. But above all, he is passionate about teaching people how to manage their money and helping millions on their journey to a better financial future.