Many people think life insurance is useful only for a specific period in life: those twenty to thirty years when a person is married with children living at home. The assumption is that should a breadwinner die once the children are grown, the surviving spouse will be able to support himself or herself on a single income. In such a scenario, life insurance is necessary only a 10- or 20-year period. Those who share this outlook believe that term life insurance, which provides coverage for a limited number of years, provides all the protection they need. Because the coverage is closed-ended, term life is the least expensive kind of life insurance available.
Other consumers are not so optimistic. What happens, they wonder, if the surviving spouse becomes disabled? Even after the children grow up and move away, a disabled person will not be able to support himself or herself if the breadwinner dies. If the term life insurance has expired, the disabled spouse will have no safety net in the event of the death of his or her spouse. Similarly, a child may become disabled and unable to move out and support himself or herself like other children. With a disabled adult child living at home, the surviving spouse might not be able to meet all the expenses on his or her own.
Divorce can factor into life insurance decisions as well. A term life insurance policy might cover a “first” family, but many people divorce, remarry, and start new families. The number of people having or adopting children in their forties and fifties is increasing steadily. A term policy taken out in a breadwinner’s twenties or thirties will expire just as the new family is getting started, unless he or she has “renewable” term life. Even then, costs will go up.
It is possible for an older person to buy a new term policy, of course. The problem is that insurability is not guaranteed. If a person is in poor health or has had a serious illness, such as cancer, insurance companies can and will deny coverage. Even in ideal health, a person will pay much more for term life over the age of 50 than he or she would have much earlier, erasing some or all of the savings realized during the term of the first policy. For example, a 55-year-old woman will pay 6.8 times more for a 30-year, $500,000 policy than she would have at age 30–$2,210 a year compared to just $325 a year. Prices will increase by as much as 30 percent if the insured is just 10 pounds above the insurance company’s ideal weight. If the person weighs even more, rates will skyrocket.
Some term life policies are renewable without needing a physical exam. These policies cost more than standard term policies, but they allow the coverage to continue. The premiums rise with each renewable period, reflecting the greater risk of death as a person ages.
The best way to guarantee insurability and control insurance costs into middle age is to buy permanent life insurance, such as whole life insurance or universal life insurance. Permanent life insurance does not expire until the insured does. In addition, the premiums will not go up based on the health, weight, or age of the insured. If a permanent life insurance is taken out while a person is in his or her twenties or thirties, the premiums are much higher than those of a term life insurance. Because the premiums remain constant, however, they are lower than those of a term life policy taken out later in life.
Permanent life insurance also provides a way for consumers to generate savings, something that term life insurance does not. Term life is pure insurance in the sense that it insures the policyholder’s life and nothing else. Permanent life insures a life, too, but it also includes a mechanism for saving money. When the permanent life insurance policy is new, the cost of insuring the life is lower than the premium amount. The insurance company deposits the excess amount (minus the company’s fees and profits) into savings account. This money, known as the cash value, increases each time a premium is paid. The insurance company invests these funds in the open market. The returns on the investment are credited to the account. These gains are tax-deferred, meaning that they grow, untaxed, as long as the money is in the account. If the cash value is withdrawn or used to pay the premiums after the insured reaches retirement age, no taxes are paid on the gains.
The policyholder can access the accumulated cash value by withdrawing it, borrowing it, or using it as collateral for a loan. The insurance company also agrees to pay the cash value to the policyholder, if he or she cancels the policy.
There are basically two types of permanent life insurance: whole life and universal life. Both offer permanent coverage and cash value. They differ in the amount of flexibility they offer policyholders. Whole life offers set-it-and-forget-it simplicity. The death benefit, premium amount, and rate of cash value accumulation are fixed at the outset. Universal life allows the policyholder to modify the original contract, based on changing circumstances and needs. For example, if the policyholder loses his or her job, he or she can decrease the premium to make it more affordable. By contrast, if the policyholder receives a promotion, gets a better paying job, or enjoys growth in their own business, he or she can increase the premium amount to accumulate cash value more quickly. If the policyholder marries, has more children, buys a larger house, or for any reason needs a larger death benefit to sustain his or her family, he or she can increase the death benefit of the universal life insurance policy.
Universal life insurance accumulates cash value in a different way than whole life does. With whole life, the rate of accumulation is low, around 3 percent, but it is guaranteed and unchanging. With universal life, cash value accumulates at varying rates, depending on the performance of the insurance company’s investments. Typically, universal life outperforms whole life, and accumulates cash value more quickly. It is possible, however, for the opposite to happen. Many universal life policies offer a guaranteed minimum return, but it is lower than the return for a comparable whole life policy.
Permanent life insurance is a practical solution for consumers who worry about coverage and insurability later in life. Those who are happy with a simple, unchanging, guaranteed plan may opt for whole life. Those who want the option of adjusting the premium amount or the size of the death benefit may find that universal life offers the perfect combination flexibility and security.