No matter your age, it’s probably a good time to think about getting life insurance. It’s a key step in financial planning, so let’s get to know the two main types – term and permanent – so you can understand which is the right option to protect your loved ones.
First, a crash course in what insurance is: When you purchase a life insurance policy, you make recurring premium payments. Should you die while covered, your policy will pay a lump sum that you’ve selected to the beneficiaries you have designated. It’s an important way to know that if you weren’t around, working hard, your loved ones’ expenses (housing, food, medical care, tuition, etc.) would be covered.
Granted, no one wants to imagine leaving this earth, but buying life insurance can give you tremendous peace of mind.
Types of Life Insurance
Now that the basic concept is clear, let’s take a closer look at the two types of life insurance policies: term and permanent.
Term life insurance offers coverage for a certain amount of time, while permanent life insurance provides coverage for the policyholder’s whole life as long as premiums are paid. (These policies come in a variety of options. We’ll break those down for you in a moment.) There’s no right or wrong type; only a policy that is right for you and your needs. Figuring out which one will be easier once you understand the eight different kinds of life insurance and the needs they were designed to satisfy.
1. Term Life Insurance
Term life insurance, as the name suggests, protects a policyholder for a set amount of time. It pays a death benefit to beneficiaries if the insured person dies within that time frame. Term life insurance coverage usually ranges from 5 to 30 years. Typically, all payments and death benefits are fixed.
There are several reasons why a term life insurance policy might be right for you. Perhaps there is a specific, finite expense that you need to know is covered. For instance, if covering the years of a mortgage or college expenses for loved ones is a priority, term life insurance may make the most sense.
These policies can be helpful for young people too. If, say, you took out hefty student loans that are coming due and your parents co-signed, you might want to buy a life insurance policy. The lump sum could cover that debt in a worst-case scenario.
Another reason to consider term life insurance: It tends to be more affordable. If you don’t need lifelong coverage, a term policy might be an excellent choice that’s usually easier on your budget.
A few variables to be aware of:
• Term life insurance may be renewable, meaning its term can be extended. This is true “even if the health of the insured (or other factors) would cause him or her to be rejected if he or she applied for a new life insurance policy,” according to the Insurance Information Institute. Renewal of a term policy will probably trigger a premium increase, so it’s important to do the math if you’re buying term insurance while thinking, “I’ll just extend it when it ends.”
• If you would be comfortable with your coverage declining over time (that is, the lump sum lowering), consider looking into the option known as decreasing term insurance.
💡 Quick Tip: Term life insurance coverage can range from $100K to $8 million. As your life changes, you can increase or decrease your coverage.
2. Whole Life Insurance
Whole life insurance is the most common type of permanent life insurance, which protects policyholders for the duration of their lives.
As long as the premiums are paid, whole life insurance offers a guaranteed death benefit whenever the policyholder passes. In addition to this extended covered versus term life insurance, whole life policies have a cash value component that can grow over the policy’s life.
Here’s how this works: As a policyholder pays the premiums (these are typically fixed), a portion goes toward the cash value, which accumulates over time. We know the terminology used in explaining insurance can get a little complicated at times, so note there’s another way this may be described. You may hear this referred to as your insurance company paying dividends into your cash value account.
This cash value accrues on a tax-deferred basis, meaning you, the policyholder, won’t owe taxes on the earnings as long as the policy stays active. Also worth noting: If you buy this kind of life insurance and need cash, you can take out a loan (with interest being charged) against the policy or withdraw funds. If a loan is unpaid at the time of death, it will lower the death benefit for beneficiaries.
The cash value component and lifelong coverage of this type of life insurance can be pretty darn appealing. And it may be a good fit for funding a trust or supporting a loved one with a disability. However, buying a whole life policy can be pricey; it can be many multiples of the cost of term insurance. It’s definitely a balancing act to determine the coverage you’d like and the price you can pay.
For those who are not hurting in the area of finances, whole life can have another use. A policy can also be used to pay estate taxes for the wealthy. For individuals who have estates that exceed the current estate tax exemption (IRS guideline for 2024) of 13.6 million, the policy can pay the estate taxes when the policyholder dies.
3. Universal Life Insurance
Who doesn’t love having freedom of choice? If you like the kind of protection that a permanent policy offers, there are still more varieties to consider. Let’s zoom in on universal life insurance, which may provide more flexibility than a whole life policy. The cash account that’s connected to your policy typically earns interest, similar to that of a money market. While that may not be a huge plus at this moment, you will probably have your life insurance for a long time, and that interest could really kick in.
What’s more, as the cash value ratchets up, you may be able to alter your premiums. You can put some of the moolah in your cash account towards your monthly payments, which in some situations can really come in handy.
This kind of policy is also sometimes called adjustable life insurance, because you can decide to raise the benefit (the lump sum that goes to your beneficiaries) down the road, provided you pass a medical exam.
4. Variable Life Insurance
Do you have an interest in finance and watch the market pretty closely? We hear you. Variable life insurance could be the right kind of permanent policy for you. In this case, the cash value account can be invested in stocks, bonds, and money market funds. That gives you a good, broad selection and plenty of opportunity to grow your funds more quickly. However, you are going to have more risk this way; if you put your money in a stock that fizzles, you’re going to feel it, and not in a good way. Some policies may guarantee a minimum death benefit, even if the investments are not performing well.
This volatility can play out in other ways. If your investments are performing really well, you can direct some of the proceeds to pay the premiums. But if they are slumping, you might have to increase your premium payment amounts to ensure that the policy’s cash value portion doesn’t fall below the minimum.**
This kind of variable life insurance policy really suits a person who wants a broader range of investment options for the policy’s cash value component. While returns are not guaranteed, the greater range of investments may yield better long-term returns than a whole life insurance policy will.
5. Variable Universal Life Insurance
Variable universal life insurance is another type of a permanent policy, but it’s as flexible as an acrobat. If you like to tinker and tweak things, this may be ideal. Just as the name suggests, it merges some of the most desirable features of variable and universal plans. How precisely does that shake out for you, the potential policyholder? For the cash account aspect of your policy, you have all the rewards (and possible risks) of a variable life insurance policy that you just learned about above. You have a wide array of ways to grow your money, which puts you in control.
The features that are borrowed from the universal life model are the ability to potentially change the death benefit amount. You can also adjust the premium payments. If your cash account is soaring, you can use that money towards your monthly costs…sweet! It’s a nice bonus, especially if funds are tight.
6. Indexed Universal Life Insurance
This is another type of permanent life insurance with a death benefit for your beneficiaries as well as a cash account. You may see it called “IUL.”
In this instance, the cash account earns interest based on how a stock-market index performs. For instance, the money that accrues might be linked to the S&P (Standard & Poor’s) 500 composite price index, which follows the shifts of the 500 biggest companies in America. These policies may offer a minimum guaranteed rate of return, which can be reassuring.
On the other hand, there may be a cap on how high the returns can go. A IUL insurance plan may be a good fit if you are comfortable with more risk than a fixed universal life policy, but don’t want the risk of a variable universal life insurance product.
7. Guaranteed or Simplified Issue Life Insurance
With most life insurance policies, some form of medical underwriting is required. “Underwriting” can be one of those mysterious insurance terms that is often used without explanation. Here’s one aspect of this that you should know about.
Part of the approval process for underwritten policies involves using information from exams, blood tests, and medical history to determine the applicant’s health status, which in turn contributes to the calculated monthly costs of a policy. Underwriting serves an important purpose: It helps policyholders pay premiums that coincide with their health status. If you work hard at staying in excellent health, you are likely to be rewarded for that with lower monthly payments.
However, sometimes insurance buyers don’t want to go through that process. Maybe they have health issues. Or perhaps they don’t want to wait the 45 or 60 days that underwriting often requires before a policy can be issued. With guaranteed or simplified issue life insurance, the steps are streamlined. Applicants may not have to take a medical exam to qualify and approvals come faster.
These policies tend to have lower death benefits (think $10,000, $50,000, or perhaps $250,000 at the very high end) than the other types of life insurance we’ve described. Less medical underwriting also means policies tend to be more expensive. Who might be interested in this kind of insurance? It may be a good option for someone who is older (say, 45-plus), has an underlying medical condition that would usually mean higher insurance rates, or has been rejected for another form of insurance. The coverage may suit the needs of someone looking for insurance really quickly, like the uninsured people who, during the COVID-19 pandemic, wanted to sign up ASAP.
One point to be aware of: Many of these policies have what’s called a graded benefit or a waiting period. This usually means that the beneficiaries only receive the full value of the policy if the insured has had it for over two years. If the policyholder were to die before that time, the payout would be less — perhaps just the value of the premiums that had been paid.
Of the two kinds we’ve mentioned, guaranteed is usually the easiest to qualify for (as the name suggests) but costs somewhat more than the simplified issue variety, which tends to have a few more constraints. You might be deemed past the age they insure or a medical condition might disqualify you.
Worth noting: You may hear these life insurance policies are known as final expense life insurance or burial insurance. As with any simplified issue or guaranteed issue life insurance policies, no medical exam is required. These plans typically have a small death benefit (up to $50,000 in many cases) that is designed to cover funeral costs, medical bills, and perhaps credit card debt at the end of life.
8. Group Life Insurance
Group life insurance is often not something you go out and buy. Typically, it’s a policy that’s offered to you as a benefit by an employer, a trade union, or other organization. If it’s not free, it is usually offered at a low cost (deducted from your payroll), and a higher amount may be available at an affordable rate. Since an employer or entity is buying the coverage for many people at once, there are savings that are passed along to you.
That said, the amount of coverage is likely to be low, perhaps between $20,000 and $50,000, or one or two times your annual salary. Medical exams are usually not required, and the group life insurance will probably be a term rather than permanent policy,
A couple of additional points to note:
• There may be a waiting period before you are eligible for the insurance. For instance, your employer might stipulate that you have to be a member of the team for a number of months before you can access this benefit.
• If you leave your job or the group providing coverage, your policy is likely to expire. You may have the option to convert it to an individual plan at a higher premium, if you desire.
Deciding Which Life Insurance Is Best for You
So many factors go into creating that “Eureka!” moment in which you land on the right life insurance policy for you. Your age, health, budget, and particular needs play into that decision.
If you need life insurance only for a certain amount of time, you may want to select a term life insurance policy that dovetails with your needs. Covering a child’s college and postgraduate years is a common scenario. Another is taking out a policy that lasts until your mortgage is paid off, to know your partner would be protected.
A term life insurance policy may also be a good fit for someone who has a limited budget but needs a substantial amount of coverage. Since term policies have a specific coverage window, they are often the more affordable option.
For someone who needs coverage for life and wants a cash accumulation feature, a permanent policy such as whole life insurance might be worth considering. Not only will this policy stay in place for life (as long as the premiums are paid), but the cash value element allows use of the funds to pay premiums or any other purpose.
Permanent life insurance lets you know that, whenever you pass on, funds will be there for your dependents. It can be a great option if you have, say, a loved one who can’t live independently, and you want to know they will have financial coverage. Whole life insurance is typically more expensive than term life insurance, but the premium remains the same for the insured’s life.
In terms of when to buy life insurance, here are a few points to keep in mind:
• It’s best to apply when you’re young and healthy so you can receive the best rate available.
• Typically, major life events signal people to buy life insurance. These are moments when you realize someone else is depending on you (and, not to sound crass, your income). It could be when you marry or have a child. It could be when you realize a relative will need long-term caregiving.
• Even if you are older or have underlying health conditions, there are options available to you. They may not give as high an amount of coverage as other life insurance policies, but they can offer a moderate benefit amount and give you a degree of peace of mind.
💡 Quick Tip: With life insurance, one size does not fit all. Policies can and should be tailored to fit your specific needs.
Picking out the right life insurance policy can seem complicated, but in truth, the number of choices just reflects how easy it can be to get the right coverage for your needs. There’s truly something for everyone, regardless of your age or budget. Whether you opt for term, permanent, group, or guaranteed issue, you can get the peace of mind and protection that all insurance plans bring.
SoFi has partnered with Ladder to offer competitive term life insurance policies that are quick to set up and easy to understand. Apply in just minutes and get an instant decision. As your circumstances change, you can update or cancel your policy with no fees and no hassles.
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