Voluntary vs Group Term Life Insurance

By Kelly Boyer Sagert · October 10, 2022 · 8 minute read

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Voluntary vs Group Term Life Insurance

Group term and voluntary term life insurance are both offered by employers and other organizations, providing convenient and low-cost baseline coverage. Depending on the employer, coverage may not be as comprehensive as some employees might require.

We’ll get into what group term life insurance is, how it’s different from voluntary term, and who should take advantage of these policies. You’ll also find out what portion of group term life insurance benefits is taxable and whether premiums are tax deductible.

Group Term Life Insurance, Defined

What is group term life insurance exactly? Term life insurance covers a policyholder for a set amount of time, hence the “term” part. (This roundup of life insurance terminology can be helpful for the uninitiated.) It pays a death benefit to beneficiaries — usually family members or other dependents — if the insured person dies within that time frame.

Group term life insurance is simply a policy offered to a group — often by an employer, trade union, or other organization — often at no cost to the employee. Group life insurance is sometimes referred to as employer-provided life insurance. If you’re new to the concept of life insurance, check out this guide to how life insurance works.

How Group Term Life Insurance Works

Group term life insurance coverage usually covers the timeframe of the member’s employment. (When it’s not purchased through an employer, terms range from 5 to 30 years.) All premium payments and death benefits tend to be fixed. If the policyholder lives past the end date on the policy, no benefit is paid and the premium payments are forfeited.

This type of policy is sometimes referred to as a “pure” life insurance product. That is, it has no cash value. Other types of life insurance do.

In group policies, many employers pay for baseline coverage for the employee, who pays nothing. Additional term life policies may be available at an affordable rate to cover a spouse, child (learn why life insurance for children might be necessary), or other dependent, with premiums deducted from payroll. Since an employer or similar entity is buying the coverage for many people at once, their savings are passed along to the members.

Recommended: Why is Life Insurance Important?

What Group Term Life Insurance Typically Covers

Often, group policies pay out the equivalent of one year’s salary. Group term may cover fewer causes of death than other policies, but generally includes critical illness. Death by self-inflicted wounds may be excluded for the first 1 to 3 years of the policy.

Pros and Cons of Group Term Life Insurance

Group term life insurance has advantages and disadvantages.

Pros of Group Term Life Insurance:

•   Cost. Baseline policies are often free.

•   Availability. There’s usually no medical exam or other strict requirements.

•   Simple application. Often employees just check a box or sign a form.

•   Coverage when you need it. Families have some coverage in the event their main source of income is lost.

Cons of Group Term Life Insurance:

•   Low payout. Coverage is typically on the low side, equivalent to one year’s salary at most. Experts typically recommend that life insurance cover 10x your salary or more, depending on your financial obligations.

•   Lack of choice. A single policy is typically selected by your employer to cover all members, regardless of situation.

•   Non-portable. If you leave your job, you lose your coverage.

Recommended: What is Supplemental Life Insurance?

Requirements of Group Term Life Insurance

Requirements are minimal and usually involve being a permanent employee. You may need to be employed for a certain period of time (say, 90 days) before qualifying. There is typically no medical exam required. Individual workplace requirements can vary.

Voluntary Term Life Insurance, Defined

Similar to group term life insurance, voluntary policies are offered by an employer or membership group. However, voluntary policies are entirely optional (or voluntary) benefits the employee can purchase. Because your employer negotiates a group rate, it’s usually more affordable than purchasing online insurance yourself. If you’re curious about non-employer-based policies, this is a helpful look at how to buy life insurance.

As with group term, voluntary term life insurance has no cash value nor options for investing your premiums. (Whole life insurance does have cash value. Here’s a good comparison of term vs. whole life insurance.)

Recommended: How to Calculate Expected Rate of Return

How Voluntary Term Life Insurance Works

As with most life insurance, voluntary term pays out a lump sum to your beneficiaries if you die while the policy is in effect. Premiums are deducted from the policyholder’s paycheck.

Voluntary term life insurance coverage may be offered on an annual basis. The employee can choose to re-up, change, or cancel during their company’s open enrollment period. Rates go up over time, either annually or as the employee enters a new age bracket.

Recommended: How Long Do You Have to Have Life Insurance Before You Die

What Voluntary Term Life Insurance Typically Covers

Employees may select their amount of coverage, usually in multiples of their salary. The more coverage you select, the higher your premium will be. Limitations may be set as to the level of coverage you can choose or the availability of certain riders, compared to individual life insurance. Coverage varies by employer. But your voluntary policy should have the same coverage options and exclusions as your group term policy.

For lower coverage amounts, no medical information may be required. Higher coverage amounts often require a health questionnaire or medical exam.

Pros and Cons of Voluntary Life Insurance

As you might guess, the advantages and disadvantages of voluntary term insurance are similar to those of group term insurance. However, they’re not identical.

Pros of Voluntary Term Life Insurance:

•   Low cost. While not free, premiums are normally more affordable than for individual policies due to the employer’s group discount. You can learn about typical premium costs in this look at how much life insurance is.

•   No medical exam. No medical exam is required for less coverage. Older employees and those with health issues usually get a better deal through voluntary term plans than on their own.

•   Simplicity. Employees just need to select the level of coverage they want.

•   More-complete coverage. Because you can choose your level of coverage, payout benefits could cover loved ones completely in case of the policyholder’s death.

•   Portability. If you leave your job, you might be able to keep your coverage, but your premiums may rise significantly.

Cons of Voluntary Term Life Insurance:

•   Limitations. Employees are limited to a single insurance company. There may also be limits to the level of coverage and available policy riders.

•   Short-term solution. Employees who don’t plan on staying with their company long-term may be better served by an individual policy.

Recommended: Why Life Insurance is Important

Main Difference Between Voluntary and Group Term Life Insurance

Group term life insurance is typically free through your employer, while voluntary term is an optional benefit the employee can purchase at a reduced rate. Also, voluntary term insurance usually offers different levels of coverage, while group is provided at one level for all employees.

If you’re still not clear on the differences, this high-level introduction to what is life insurance may be useful.

Requirements for Voluntary Term Life Insurance

Like basic group insurance, requirements are minimal aside from a potential waiting period for new employees. There is typically no medical exam required. Individual workplace requirements can vary.

Is Group Term Life Insurance Taxable?

There are two components to group term life insurance that pertain to taxes: premiums and payouts.

Are Group Term Life Premiums Tax Deductible?

Life insurance premiums are usually not tax deductible. The IRS considers such premiums a “personal expense.” There may be exceptions for beneficiaries that are charitable organizations. (SoFi does not provide tax advice, please consult with a tax professional prior to making any decision.)

Are Group Term Life Payouts Taxable?

The first $50,000 of payouts from group term life insurance carried by an employer is excluded from taxes. After that, the benefit is counted as income and subject to income tax as well as social security and Medicare taxes.

The Takeaway

Term life insurance typically pays out a lump sum equal to a multiple of the policyholder’s salary upon their death. It has no cash value or investment options. Employers, unions and other organizations may offer group term life insurance as a free benefit. Employees may upgrade their coverage with voluntary term life insurance at a low cost, deducted from their paycheck.

Voluntary term policies can be valuable to older employees and those with health problems because premiums are low and a medical exam is usually not required. However, group policies can have limitations that make them less comprehensive than individual policies.

If you’re shopping for life insurance, SoFi has partnered with Ladder to offer competitive life insurance policies that are quick to set up and easy to understand. You can apply in just minutes and get an instant decision. As your circumstances change, you can easily change or cancel your policy with no fees and no hassles.

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What are the disadvantages of group term insurance?

Coverage amounts tend to be much smaller than what experts recommend. You’ll need to use the insurance carrier chosen by your employer and, if you leave your job, you’ll lose the policy.

What happens to my group life insurance when I retire?

Retirees likely have the opportunity to continue paying for their life insurance. Before you retire, explore your options, comparing cost and benefits.

Is group term life insurance the same as life insurance?

Group term life insurance is one type of life insurance that pays out a lump sum upon the policyholder’s death. It has no cash value, unlike whole life policies, which are another type of life insurance.

Photo credit: iStock/akinbostanci

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