What Is Indexed Universal Life Insurance (IUL)?

By Kelly Boyer Sagert · March 11, 2024 · 7 minute read

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What Is Indexed Universal Life Insurance (IUL)?

When life insurance policy types are listed and described, the focus is usually on two of them: term life and whole life policies. There are more types than those two, though, and they’re typically more complex. They include universal life insurance — and, as a subset, indexed universal life insurance, or IUL. This is an advanced type of policy, where interest on the cash value component is linked to a market index.

In this post, we’ll define IUL, explain how it works, share its pros and cons, and more.

Definition of Indexed Universal Life Insurance (IUL)

First, let’s define universal life insurance. Universal life insurance is a permanent policy, which means that it doesn’t have a set term (say, for 10 or 20 years) and it comes with a cash value. A universal life insurance policy allows policyholders to flexibly adjust premiums and death benefits, though this can have an adverse effect on the policy.

Now, what is IUL? Indexed universal life insurance adds another twist to the equation. This is a type of universal life insurance that doesn’t come with a fixed interest rate. Instead, its growth is tied to a market index. (More about the index soon.)

💡 Quick Tip: With life insurance, one size does not fit all. Policies can and should be tailored to fit your specific needs.

How Does IUL Work?

After someone buys an IUL policy, they pay premiums, which is similar to other types of life insurance policy structures. Part of that premium covers the insurance costs that, like with other types of life insurance, are based on the insured’s demographics. Remaining fees paid go towards the cash value of policy. Interest paid is calculated in ways that are based on an index (or indexes).

This may sound similar to investing in the stock market, but there’s a key difference. The part of the premium that goes towards the cash value of the policy doesn’t get directly invested in stocks. Instead, the market index(es) is how the interest rate and amount is determined, with a minimum fixed interest rate usually guaranteed.

IULs typically offer policyholders a choice of indexes and allow them to divide the cash value portions of their premiums between fixed and indexed account options.

Explaining the “Index” Feature

A market index represents a broad portfolio of investments with the use of weighted average mathematics to come up with the index figure, which then plays a central role in the amount of interest paid. The three most commonly used market indexes in the United States are the Dow Jones, the S&P 500 and the Nasdaq Composite.

Note that funds invested for the cash portion of the insurance policy do not need to be invested in the index used to calculate the interest. Many times, insurers invest these dollars in bonds rather than stocks.

Benefits and Drawbacks of IUL Insurance

Like other types of life insurance policies, indexed universal life insurance comes with pros and cons. Here is an overview of the benefits and drawbacks of IUL.

Benefits of IUL Insurance

Benefits include:

•   There’s a death benefit for beneficiaries, as well as the cash value of the policy.

•   Withdrawals can be tax-free up to the amount of premiums paid.

•   Premiums are flexible — you can pay different amounts each month as long as it’s enough to cover fees and doesn’t go beyond an IRS limit.

•   Gains are locked in each year, which means you can’t lose the previous years’ gains. However, if the market is down the following year, it can decrease unless the policy has a built-in floor.

•   Because of the annual reset feature, you never need to make up any losses from prior years.

•   No mandatory distributions exist.

•   You can explore your tax benefits with your accountant or other financial advisor, and they may be significant for your situation.

•   You can borrow against this policy and, if you do, you typically won’t face negative tax consequences.

Recommended: Life Insurance Definitions

Cons of IUL Insurance

Challenges include:

•   An IUL is complicated and, to get the most benefits from this policy, you’ll need to understand how to maximize its value.

•   Although you can pay a minimal premium amount when you want, this can have a negative overall effect on the policy’s cash value.

•   Because the cost for the insurance portion depends on your rating, how much is insured and your age, the cost will go up over the years as you get older.

•   Although the rate is based on an index, policies come with a cap. So, during high index years, you likely won’t realize the full benefit because of this cap. On the flipside, however, many policies also have built-in floors to offset the cap.

•   Fees can take a big chunk out of the policy, causing you to lose much of its value.

•   If you don’t keep the policy in force, you may lose the death benefit (which is true of other types of policies), along with the extra money paid into the premiums.

Alternatives to IUL Insurance

Whether you’re not sold on IUL insurance or simply want to know what your other life insurance options are, here are some of the alternatives to indexed universal life insurance:

•   Adjustable life insurance: This combines aspects of term life insurance with whole life and provides policyholders with the flexibility to adjust the policy’s amount, term premiums and more. Adjustable life policies also come with a cash value component. A key benefit of adjustable life insurance is that you can make adjustments to your policy without the need to cancel the current policy or buy a new one.

•   Variable universal life insurance: Variable universal life is similar to IUL, as it is a permanent life insurance policy that has a cash value and flexible premiums. The investment portion comes with subaccounts and can resemble investing in mutual funds. When the market is doing well, this can benefit the policyholder, but when it’s not, significant losses can occur.

•   Standard universal life insurance: Then, of course, there are universal life insurance policies. These come with a fixed interest rate rather than one tied to an index.

•   Whole life insurance: Additionally, there’s the more basic whole life insurance policy with standard premiums. There is also a guaranteed death benefit and a cash value component.

•   Term life insurance: Then, life insurance at its simplest: term life insurance policies. These don’t come with cash value components or any real bells and whistles. These policies have a term limit (perhaps 10 to 20 years) and are more straightforward and affordable than other options, coming with a death benefit to beneficiaries when the covered individual dies while the policy is paid up and in force.

•   Current assumption whole life insurance: Another type of cash value insurance is called current assumption whole life (CAWL), and it has similarities to universal life insurance policies. Premiums are fixed for a certain period of time and, on predetermined dates, premiums are recalculated (and perhaps the death benefit is, as well). Plus, interest is handled in a way that’s similar to universal life.

Recommended: How to Buy Life Insurance

Is IUL Insurance Right for Me?

By comparing this overview of indexed universal life insurance with, say, term or whole life insurance, you can see that IUL insurance is quite complex. If, though, you’re earning a high income or want to explore long-term investment opportunities, it can make sense to consider whether the tax benefits associated with an IUL would be worthwhile.

For those who do consider moving forward with exploring indexed universal life insurance, it’s important to compare its pros or cons against those of other types of life insurance. Also take the time to research and compare different life insurance policies.

💡 Quick Tip: Term life insurance coverage can range from $100K to $8 million. As your life changes, you can increase or decrease your coverage.

The Takeaway

Although the question of “What is IUL?” is quite short, the answer isn’t. If this type of policy interests you, consider exploring it in more depth to ensure that you’re clear about its complexities.

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.

Explore your life insurance options with SoFi Protect.

Photo credit: iStock/DragonImages

Coverage and pricing is subject to eligibility and underwriting criteria.
Ladder Insurance Services, LLC (CA license # OK22568; AR license # 3000140372) distributes term life insurance products issued by multiple insurers- for further details see ladderlife.com. All insurance products are governed by the terms set forth in the applicable insurance policy. Each insurer has financial responsibility for its own products.
Ladder, SoFi and SoFi Agency are separate, independent entities and are not responsible for the financial condition, business, or legal obligations of the other, Social Finance. Inc. (SoFi) and Social Finance Life Insurance Agency, LLC (SoFi Agency) do not issue, underwrite insurance or pay claims under Ladder Life™ policies. SoFi is compensated by Ladder for each issued term life policy.
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All services from Ladder Insurance Services, LLC are their own. Once you reach Ladder, SoFi is not involved and has no control over the products or services involved. The Ladder service is limited to documents and does not provide legal advice. Individual circumstances are unique and using documents provided is not a substitute for obtaining legal advice.

Tax Information: This article provides general background information only and is not intended to serve as legal or tax advice or as a substitute for legal counsel. You should consult your own attorney and/or tax advisor if you have a question requiring legal or tax advice.

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