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Taking out a life insurance policy is a great
way to protect your family’s financial future. A policy can also be a useful
financial planning tool. But life insurance is a notoriously tricky subject to
One of the hardest challenges is deciding
whether term life or whole life insurance is a better fit for you.
Not sure what separates term life from whole
life in the first place? You’re not alone. Insurance industry jargon can be
thick, but we’re here to clear up the picture and make sure you have all the
information you need to make the best decision for you and your family.
Life Insurance = Financial
Protection for Your Family
Families have all sorts of expenses: mortgage payments, utility bills, school tuition, credit card payments and car loan payments, to name a few. If something were to happen and your household unexpectedly lost your income or your spouse’s income, your surviving family might have a difficult time meeting those costs. Funeral expenses and other final arrangements could further stress your family’s financial stability.
That’s where life insurance comes in. Essentially, a policy acts as a financial safety net for your family by providing a death benefit. Most forms of natural death are covered by life insurance, but many exceptions exist, so be sure to do your research. Death attributable to suicide, motor accidents while intoxicated and high-risk activity are often explicitly not covered by term or whole life policies.
If you die while covered by your life
insurance policy, your family receives a payout, either a lump sum or in
installments. This is money that’s often tax-free and can be used to meet
things like funeral costs, financial obligations and other personal expenses.
You get coverage in exchange for paying a monthly premium, which is often
decided by your age, health status and the amount of coverage you purchase.
know how much to buy? A good rule of thumb is to multiply your yearly income by
10-15, and that’s the number you should target. Companies may have different
minimum and maximum amounts of coverage, but you can generally find a
customized policy that meets your coverage needs.
In addition to the base death benefit, you can enhance your coverage through optional riders. These are additions or modifications that can be made to your policy—whether term or whole life—often for a fee. Riders can do things like:
- Add coverage for disability or deaths not commonly
covered in base policies, like those due to public transportation accidents.
- Waive future premiums if you cannot earn an income.
- Accelerate your death benefit to pay for medical bills
your family incurs while you’re still alive.
riders may offer access to membership perks. For a fee, you might be able to
get discounts on goods and services, such as financial planning or health and
final note before we get into the differences between term and life: We’re just
covering individual insurance here. Group insurance is another avenue for
getting life insurance, wherein one policy covers a group of people. But that’s
a complex story for a different day.
Term Life Policies Are Flexible
The “term” in “term life” refers to
the period of time during which your life insurance policy is active. Often,
term life policies are available for 10, 20, 25 or 30 years. If you die during
the term covered, your family will be paid a death benefit and not be charged any future
premiums, as your policy is no longer active. So, if you were to die in year 10
of a 30-year policy, your family would not be on the hook for paying for the
other 20 years.
Typically, your insurance cannot be canceled
as long as you pay your premium. Of course, if you don’t make payments, your coverage will lapse, which typically
will end your policy. If you want to exit a policy you can cancel during an
introductory period. Generally speaking, nonpayment of premiums will not affect your credit score, as
your insurance provider is not a creditor. Given that, making payments on your
life policy won’t raise your credit score either.
The major downside of term life is that your
coverage ceases once the term expires. Ultimately, once your term expires, you need to reassess
your options for renewing, buying new coverage or upgrading. If you were to die
a month after your term expires, and you haven’t taken out a new policy, your
family won’t be covered. That’s why some people opt for another term policy to
cover changing needs. Others may choose to convert their term life into a
permanent life policy or go without coverage because the same financial
obligations—e.g., mortgage payments and college costs—no longer exist. This
might be the case in your retirement.
The Pros and Cons of Term Life
Even though term life insurance lasts for a
predetermined length of time, there are still advantages to taking out such a
- Comparably lower cost: Term life is usually the more affordable type of life insurance, making it the easiest way to get budget-friendly protection for your family. A woman who’s 34 years old can buy $1 million in coverage through a 10-year term life policy for less than $50 a month, according to U.S. News and World Report. A man who’s 42 can purchase $1 million in coverage through a 30-year term for just over $126 a month.
- Good choice for mid-term financial planning: Lots of families take out a term life policy to coincide with major financial responsibilities or until their children are financially independent. For example, if you have 20 years left on your mortgage, a term policy of the same length could provide extra financial protection for your family.
- Upgrade if you want to: If you take out a term life policy, you’ll likely also get the option to convert to a permanent form of life insurance once the term ends if your needs change. Just remember to weigh your options, as your rates will increase the older you get. Buying another term life policy at 50 years old may not represent the same value as a whole life policy at 30.
There are some drawbacks to term life:
- Coverage is temporary: The biggest downside to
term life insurance is that policies are active for only so long. That means
your family won’t be covered if something unexpected happens after your insurance
- Rising premiums: Premiums for term life
policies are often fixed, meaning they stay constant over the duration of the
policy. However, some
policies may be structured in a way that seems less costly upfront but feature
steadily increasing premiums as your term progresses.
Young Families Often Opt for Term Life
The rate you pay for term life insurance is
largely determined by your age and health. Factors outside your control may influence the rates you
see, like demand for life insurance. During a pandemic, you might be paying
more if you take a policy out amid an outbreak.
Most consumers seeking term life fall into
younger and healthier demographics, making term life rates among the most
affordable. This is because
such populations present less risk than a 70-year-old with multiple chronic
conditions. In the end, your rate depends on individual factors. So if
you’re looking for affordable protection for your family, term life might be
the best choice for you.
Term life is also a great option if you want a
- Grants you some flexibility for
future planning, as you’re
not locked into a lifetime policy.
- Can replace your or your spouse’s
income on a temporary basis.
- Will cover your children until
they are financially stable on their own.
- Is active for the same length as
certain financial responsibilities—e.g., a car loan or remaining years on a
Whole Life Insurance Offers
Like with term life policies, whole life
policies award a death benefit when you pass. This benefit is decided by the
amount of coverage you purchase, but you can also add riders that accelerate
your benefit or expand coverage for covered types of death.
The biggest difference between term life and
whole life insurance is that the latter is a type of permanent life insurance.
Your policy has no expiration date. That means you and your family benefit from
a lifetime of protection without having to worry about an unexpected event
occurring after your term has ended.
The Pros and Cons of Whole Life
As if a lifetime of coverage wasn’t enough of
advantage, whole life insurance can also be a highly useful financial planning
- Cash value: When you make a premium payment on
your whole life policy, a portion of that goes toward an account that builds
cash up over time. Your
family gets this amount in addition to the death benefit when their claim is
approved, or you can access it while living. You pay taxes only when the money
is withdrawn, allowing for tax-deferred growth of cash value. You can
often access it at any time, invest it, or take a loan out against it. However, be aware that anything
you take out and don’t repay will eventually be subtracted from what your
family receives in the end.
- Dividend payments: Many life insurance
companies offer whole life policyholders the opportunity to accrue dividends
through a whole life policy. This works much like how stocks make dividend
payments to shareholders from corporate profits. The amount you see through a dividend payment is
determined by company earnings and your provider’s target payout ratio—which is
the percentage of earnings paid to policyholders. Some life insurance
companies will make an annual dividend payment to whole life policyholders that
adds to their cash value.
Some potential downsides to consider include:
- Higher cost: Whole life is more expensive than
term life, largely because of the lifetime of coverage. This means monthly
premiums that might not fit every household budget.
- Interest rates on cash value loans: If you need emergency extra
money, a cash value loan may be more appealing than a standard bank loan, as
you don’t have to go through the typical application process. You can also get
lower interest rates on cash value loans than you would with private loans or
credit cards. Plus, you don’t have to pay the balance back, as you’re basically
borrowing from your own stash. But if you don’t pay the loan back, it will be
money lost to your family.
Whole Life Is Great for Estate Planning
Who stands to benefit most from a whole life
- Young adults and families who can
net big savings by buying a whole life policy earlier.
- Older families looking to lock in
coverage for life.
- Those who want to use their policy
as a tool for savings or estate planning.
To that last point, whole life policies are particularly advantageous in overall financial and estate planning compared to term life. Cash value is the biggest and clearest benefit, as it can allow you to build savings to access at any time and with little red tape.
you can gift a whole life policy to a grandchild, niece or nephew to help
provide for them. This works by you opening the policy and paying premiums for
a set number of years—like until the child turns 18. Upon that time, ownership
of the policy is transferred to them and they can access the cash value that’s
been built up over time.
If you’re looking for another low-touch way to leave a legacy, consider opening a high-yield savings account that doesn’t come with monthly premium payments, or a normal investment account.
What to Do Before You Buy a
Make sure you take the right steps to finding
the best policy for you. That means:
- Researching different life insurance companies and their policies, cost and riders. (You can start by reading our review of Bestow.)
- Balancing your current and long-term needs to best protect your family.
- Buying the right amount of coverage.
If you’re interested in taking next steps, talk to your financial advisor about your specific financial situation and personal needs.
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