Life Insurance: What It Is, How It Works

Roshan
8 Min Read
Insurance

What Is Life Insurance?

Life insurance is a contract between a life insurance company and a policy owner. A life insurance policy guarantees the insurer pays a sum of money to one or more named beneficiaries when the insured person dies in exchange for premiums paid by the policyholder during their lifetime.

Types of Life Insurance

Many different types of life insurance are available to meet all sorts of needs and preferences. Depending on the short- or long-term needs of the person to be insured, the major choice of whether to select temporary or permanent life insurance is important to consider.

Term life insurance

Term life insurance is designed to last a certain number of years, then end. You choose the term when you take out the policy. Common terms are 10, 20, or 30 years. The best term life insurance policies balance affordability with long-term financial strength.1

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  • Decreasing term life insurance is renewable term life insurance with coverage decreasing over the life of the policy at a predetermined rate.
  • Convertible term life insurance allows policyholders to convert a term policy to permanent insurance.
  • Renewable term life insurance provides a quote for the year the policy is purchased. Premiums increase annually and are usually the least expensive term insurance in the beginning.
  • Many term life insurance policies allow you to renew the contract on an annual basis once the term is up. This is one way to extend your life insurance coverage but since the renewal rate is based on your current age, premiums can rise precipitously each year. A better solution for permanent coverage is to convert your term life insurance policy into a permanent policy. This is not an option on all term life policies; look for a convertible term policy if this is important to you.

Permanent Life Insurance

Permanent life insurance stays in force for the insured’s entire life unless the policyholder stops paying the premiums or surrenders the policy. It’s more expensive than term.23

  • Whole life insurance is a type of permanent life insurance. It accumulates a cash value in order to last the lifetime of the insured person. Cash-value life insurance also allows the policyholder to use the cash value for many purposes, such as a source of loans or cash or to pay policy premiums.
  • Universal life (UL) insurance is a type of permanent life insurance with a cash value component that earns interest. Universal life features flexible premiums. Unlike term and whole life, the premiums can be adjusted over time and designed with a level death benefit or an increasing death benefit.
  • Indexed universal life (IUL) is a type of universal life insurance that lets the policyholder earn a fixed or equity-indexed rate of return on the cash value component.
  • Variable universal life (VUL) insurance allows the policyholder to invest the policy’s cash value in an available separate account. It also has flexible premiums and can be designed with a level death benefit or an increasing death benefit.

Top-Rated Companies to Compare

When shopping for insurance, you might want to start with our list of the best life insurance companies, some of which are listed below.

CompanyAM Best RatingCoverage CapacityMaximum Issue AgePolicies Offered
Nationwide Best Overall Compare Quotes on BestMoneyA+ Over $5 million85Term, whole, UL, IUL, VUL, final expense
Protective Best for Term Compare Quotes on BestMoneyA+Over $5 million85Term, whole, UL, IUL, VUL
MassMutual Best Convertible Term Life Compare Quotes on BestMoneyA++ Over $5 million90Term, whole, UL, VUL
Mutual of Omaha Best Return-of-Premium TermCompare Quotes on BestMoneyA+ Over $5 million85Term, UL, IUL, final expense
Guardian Great Traditional Insurer Compare Quotes on BestMoneyA++ Over $5 million90Term, whole, UL, VUL
USAA Best for Military Compare Quotes on BestMoneyA++Over $5 million85Term, whole, UL
New York Life Best Whole LifeCompare Quotes on BestMoneyA++Over $5 million90Term, whole, UL, VUL

Term vs. Permanent Life Insurance

Term life insurance differs from permanent life insurance in several ways but tends to best meet the needs of most people looking for affordable life insurance coverage. Term life insurance only lasts for a set period of time and pays a death benefit should the policyholder die before the term has expired. Permanent life insurance stays in effect as long as the policyholder pays the premium. Another critical difference involves premiums—term life is generally much less expensive than permanent life because it does not involve building a cash value.

Before you apply for life insurance, you should analyze your financial situation and determine how much money would be required to maintain your beneficiaries’ standard of living or meet the need for which you’re purchasing a policy. Also, consider how long you’ll need coverage for.

For example, if you are the primary caretaker and have children 2 and 4 years old, you would want enough insurance to cover your custodial responsibilities until your children are grown up and able to support themselves.

You might research the cost of hiring a nanny and a housekeeper or using commercial child care and cleaning services, then perhaps add money for education. Include any outstanding mortgage and retirement needs for your spouse in your life insurance calculation. Especially if the spouse earns significantly less or is a stay-at-home parent. Add up what these costs would be over the next 16 or so years, add more for inflation, and that’s the death benefit you might want to buy—if you can afford it.

What Affects Your Life Insurance Premiums and Costs?

Many factors can affect the cost of life insurance premiums. Certain things may be beyond your control, but other criteria can be managed to potentially bring down the cost before (and even after) applying. Your health and age are the most important factors that determine cost, so buying life insurance as soon as you need it is often the best course of action.

After being approved for an insurance policy, if your health has improved and you’ve made positive lifestyle changes, you can request to be considered for a change in risk class. Even if it is found that you’re in poorer health than at the initial underwriting, your premiums will not go up. If you’re found to be in better health, then you your premiums may decrease. You may also be able to buy additional coverage at a lower rate than you initially did.

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