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Life Insurance 101 (Part 1): What Type of Life Insurance Should I Get?

By: Amanda Dorio, Esq.

Many of us do not start thinking about life insurance until we get our first full-time job. Usually, it’s when the company’s human resources representative asks us if we want to enroll in the employer’s group life insurance policy. After that, most people think, “Why not?” and sign up, naming a family member as the beneficiary of their policy, never giving it another thought. Although this may be a good start, few spend much more time thinking about life insurance.

What Is Life Insurance?

Life insurance is a contract between two parties, usually an individual and an insurance company. The company agrees to pay a specified sum of money (“death benefit”) upon the insured’s death to the beneficiaries named in the policy to replace the economic loss that the beneficiaries would otherwise incur. In exchange for the death benefit, the individual who purchases the policy agrees to pay premiums to the company for a specified period of time, up to a specified amount, or both.

The right kind of life insurance, when properly understood and carefully coordinated with your estate planning, can provide significant economic benefits and peace of mind for you and your loved ones should you pass away sooner than expected. As there are numerous types of life insurance, it is worth your time to become familiar with the primary varieties and know when to use them.

Types of Life Insurance

Term Insurance

Term insurance will pay the death benefit only if the insured dies within the specified period (term) spelled out in the insurance contract. For example, if the policy is for a ten-year term, but the insured dies in year eleven (after the ten-year term has ended), no death benefit is payable to the beneficiaries. This type of insurance is generally more affordable than other policies. It is designed primarily to protect the insured’s beneficiaries should premature death create economic hardship within the specified term period.

Whole Life Insurance

Whole life insurance typically guarantees a consistent premium throughout the contract. However, the premiums are typically higher than term-life premiums because the insurance company maintains a reserve that helps keep the premiums level during the insured’s life. This reserve is an accumulated cash value within the policy that the policy owner can borrow against or cash out if they choose to terminate the contract before they die. In addition, different varieties of whole life insurance can have unique features customized for particular situations.

Universal Life Insurance

Universal life (UL) insurance policies are interest-sensitive policies that can result in higher death benefits and cash value over the life of the policy, depending on a variety of investment, expense, and mortality factors that are built into the contract. However, with the potential for greater gains in cash value, the potential for greater risk is in the buildup of cash value.

If the policy’s underlying investment assets perform poorly and the cash value buildup is insufficient to cover the expense charges and mortality costs, the policy will terminate. However, UL policies are generally significantly more flexible about making premium payments from year to year and withdrawing cash value compared to whole life policies.

Therefore, a UL policy may be appropriate depending on your circumstances, the type of cash flow you anticipate, and the risks you are insuring against. As with most insurance policies, you will find limitless varieties from insurer to insurer.

Variable Life Insurance

Life Insurance - BlueVariable life (VL) insurance policies are very similar to traditional whole life policies, except that in VL policies, neither the death benefit nor the policy’s surrender value is guaranteed. In addition, either the death benefit or the surrender value can increase or decrease depending on the performance of the policy’s underlying investments. However, each VL policy typically has a minimum death benefit so that, even with poor asset performance, the beneficiaries receive a payout at the insured’s death.

These policies are unique because of the policy owner’s control over the types of investments underlying the policy. The policy’s cash value can be invested in varying degrees in stocks, bonds, real estate, and money market portfolios. Policy premiums are typically fixed, but the cash value can fluctuate from day to day depending on the underlying assets’ performance. As with other life insurance products, the death benefits are income tax-exempt.

The earnings on the assets and the accumulated cash value in the policy are income tax-deferred until after the policy has been surrendered. In addition, the policyholder can also borrow up to a certain percentage of the policy’s cash value if they need cash for a period of time (although interest is charged while the loan is outstanding).

Variable universal life insurance. Variable universal life (VUL) insurance is, as the name indicates, a hybrid of variable life and universal life insurance, with many of the most desirable features of both types of insurance built into the contracts:

  • flexible premiums
  • adjustable death benefits
  • control over the types of investments within the policy
  • the ability to borrow against the cash value
  • partial withdrawal rights

Both VUL and VL policies are subject to Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) regulations because of the flexibility of their investment options.
Survivorship life insurance. Sometimes called “second-to-die” life insurance, survivorship policies can be used when the need for an infusion of cash (the death benefit) is necessary only at the death of the second of two individuals (such as a married couple). These policies can be term, whole, universal, or variable, depending on the policyholders’ needs. For example, survivorship policies are beneficial when a married couple owns significant real property they want to keep in the family after the second spouse dies. The family would rather pay estate taxes from the life insurance proceeds than raise the cash to pay the taxes by selling the property.

First-to-Die Life Insurance

First-to-die policies allow the death benefit to be paid upon the death of the first of two insured individuals. Insuring two individuals instead of one costs less than the total premiums for separate life insurance policies on the same two individuals. For example, these policies can provide a surviving business partner with the cash necessary to buy the deceased partner’s share of the business from their spouse or family.

Single Premium Whole Life Insurance

Single premium whole life insurance allows an individual to purchase, with a single cash payment, a specific amount of insurance to cover the remainder of their life. As with typical whole life, the insured can borrow against the policy’s cash value or surrender the policy. There may be income tax consequences for surrendering the policy, but as with most other life insurance policies, there can be significant income tax protection if the policy matures and pays out at the insured’s death. Also, in some states, the cash value of life insurance can enjoy significant asset protection against future creditors’ claims, thus making investing in life insurance more attractive than other types of investments.

Those having questions and needing assistance with their estate plan, may contact me at amanda.dorio@henlaw.com or by phone at 239-344-1362.

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