Life Insurance Buyer's Guide
(Prepared by the National Association of Insurance Commissioners)
When you buy life insurance, you want coverage that fits your needs.
First, decide how much you need - and for how long - and what you can afford to pay. Keep in mind the major reason you buy life insurance is to cover the financial effects of unexpected or untimely death. Life insurance also can be one of many ways you plan for the future. Your agent can help you determine the appropriate amount of coverage.
Next, learn what kinds of policies will meet your needs and pick the one that best suits you.
Then, choose the combination of policy premium and benefits that emphasizes protection in case of early death, or benefits in case of long life, or a combination of both.
It makes good sense to ask a life insurance agent or company to help you. An agent can help you review your insurance needs and give you information about the available policies. If one kind of policy doesn't seem to fit your needs, ask about others.
This guide provides only basic information. You can get more facts from a life insurance agent or from your public library.
If you are thinking about dropping a life insurance policy, here are some things you should consider:
Here are some questions to ask yourself:
All policies are not the same. Some give coverage for your lifetime and others cover you for a specific number of years. Some build up cash values and others do not. Some policies combine different kinds of insurance, and others let you change from one kind of insurance to another. Some policies may offer other benefits while you are still living. Your choice should be based on your needs and what you can afford.
There are two basic types of life insurance: term insurance and cash value insurance. Term insurance generally has lower premiums in the early years, but does not build up cash values that you can use in the future. You may combine cash value life insurance with term insurance for the period of your greatest need for life insurance to replace income.
Term Insurance covers you for a term of one or more years. It pays a death benefit only if you die in that term. Term insurance generally offers the largest insurance protection for your premium dollar. It generally does not build up cash value.
You can renew most term insurance policies for one or more terms even if your health has changed. Each time you renew the policy for a new term, premiums may be higher. Ask what the premiums will be if you continue to renew their policy. Also ask if you will lose the right renew the policy at some age. For a higher premium, some companies will give you the right to keep the policy in force for a guaranteed period at the same price each year. At the end of that time you may need to pass a physical examination to continue coverage, and premiums may increase.
You may be able to trade many term insurance policies for a cash value policy during a conversion period - even if you are not in good health. Premiums for the new policy will be higher than you have been paying for the term insurance.
Cash Value Life Insurance is a type of insurance where the premiums charged are higher at the beginning than they would be for the same amount of term insurance. The part of the premium that is not used for the cost of insurance is invested by the company and builds up a cash value that may be used in a variety of ways. You may borrow against a policy's cash value by taking a policy loan. If you don't pay back the loan and the interest on it, the amount you owe will be subtracted from the benefits when you die, or from the cash value if you stop paying premiums and take out the remaining cash value. You can also use your cash value to keep insurance protection for a limited time or to buy a reduced amount without having to pay more premiums. You can also use the cash value to increase your income in retirement or to help pay for needs such as a child's tuition without canceling the policy. However you build up this cash value, you must pay higher premiums in the earlier years of the policy. Cash value life insurance may be one of several types; whole life, universal life and variable life are all types of cash value insurance.
Whole Life Insurance covers you for as long as you live if your premiums are paid. You generally pay the same amount in premiums for as long as you live. When you first take out the policy, premiums can be several times higher than you would pay initially for the same amount of term insurance. But they are smaller than the premiums you would eventually pay if you were to keep renewing a term policy until your later years.
Some whole life policies let you pay premiums for a shorter period such as 20 years, or until age 65. Premiums for these policies are higher since the premium payments are made during a shorter period.
Universal Life Insurance is a kind of flexible policy that lets you vary your premium payments. You can also adjust the face amount of your coverage. Increases may require proof that you qualify for the new death benefit. The premiums you pay (less expense charges) go into a policy account that earns interest. Charges are deducted form the account. If your yearly premium payment plus the interest your account earns is less than the charges, your account value will become lower. If it keeps dropping, eventually your coverage will end. To prevent that, you may need to start making premium payments, or increase your premium payments, or lower your death benefits. Even if there is enough in your account to pay the premiums, continuing to pay premiums yourself means that you build up more cash value.
Variable Life Insurance is a kind of insurance where the death benefits and cash values depend on the investment performance of one or more separate accounts, which may be invested in mutual funds or other investments allowed under the policy. Be sure to get the prospectus from the company when buying this kind of policy and STUDY IT CAREFULLY. You will have higher death benefits and cash value if the underlying investments do well. Your benefits and cash value will be lower or may disappear if the investments you choose didn't do as well as you expected. You pay an extra premium for a guaranteed death benefit.
After you have decided which kind of life insurance is best for you, compare similar policies from different companies to find which one is likely to give you the best value for your money. A simple comparison of the premiums is not enough. There are other things to consider. For example: