Understanding Life Insurance Benefits and Types

Life insurance or life assurance is a contract between the policy owner and the insurer, where the insurer agrees to pay a sum of money upon the occurrence of the insured individual's or individuals' death or other event, such as terminal illness or critical illness. In return, the policy owner agrees to pay a stipulated amount called a premium at regular intervals or in lump sums. There may be designs in some countries where bills and death expenses plus catering for after funeral expenses should be included in Policy Premium. In the United States, the predominant form simply specifies a lump sum to be paid on the insured's demise.

As with most insurance policies, life insurance is a contract between the insurer and the policy owner whereby a benefit is paid to the designated beneficiaries if an insured event occurs which is covered by the policy.

1. All policies fall into one of two camps.

There are term policies, or pure insurance coverage. And there are the many variants of whole life, which combine an investment product with pure term insurance and build cash value.

2. Insurance is sold, not bought.

Agents sell the vast majority of life policies written in the U.S. because the life insurance industry has a vested interest in pushing high-commission (and high-profit) whole-life policies.

3. Whole life is expensive.

Policies with an investment component cost many times more than term policies. As a result, many people who buy whole life often can't afford an adequate face value, leaving themselves underinsured.

4. Whole-life policies are built on assumptions.

The returns quoted by the agent are simply guesses - not reality. And some companies keep these guesses of future returns on the high side to attract more buyers.

5. Keep your investing and insurance strictly separate.

There are better places to invest - and without the high commissions of whole-life policies.

6. Buy enough term coverage to fill your needs.

Life insurance is no place to skimp, especially with rates at historic lows.

7. Match the term of the policy to your needs.

You want the policy to last as long as it takes for your dependents to leave the nest - or for your retirement income to kick in.

8. Buy when you're healthy.

Older people and those not in the best of health pay steeply higher rates for life insurance - so buy as early as you can, but don't buy until you have dependents.

9. Tell the truth.

There's no sense in shading the facts on your application to get a lower rate. Be assured that if a large claim is made, the insurance company will investigate before paying.

10. Use the Web to shop.

Buying life insurance has never been easier, thanks to the Internet. You can get tons of quotes - and avoid the pushy salespeople.

Types of Life Insurance Policies:

There are two basic kinds of life insurance policies: whole life and term insurance.

Whole-life policies, a type of permanent insurance, combine life coverage with an investment fund. Here, you're buying a policy that pays a stated, fixed amount on your death, and part of your premium goes toward building cash value from investments made by the insurance company.

Cash value builds tax-deferred each year that you keep the policy, and you can borrow against the cash accumulation fund without being taxed. The amount you pay usually doesn't change throughout the life of the policy.

Universal life is a type of permanent insurance policy that combines term insurance with a money market-type investment that pays a market rate of return. To get a higher return, these policies generally don't guarantee a certain rate. Variable life and variable universal life are permanent policies with an investment fund tied to a stock or bond mutual-fund investment. Returns are not guaranteed.

The other type of coverage is term insurance, which has no investment component. You're buying life coverage that lasts for a set period of time provided you pay the monthly premium. Annual-renewable term is purchased year-by-year, although you don't have to requalify by showing evidence of good health each year.

When you're young, premiums for annual-renewable term insurance are dirt cheap - as low as a few hundred dollars per year for $250,000 worth of coverage. As you get older, premiums steadily increase. Level-premium term has somewhat higher - but fixed - premiums for longer periods, anywhere from five to 30 years.

Buying Life Insurance

Getting the right policy at the right price can be incredibly easy or very difficult.

Life insurance is a highly competitive business, in which the salesforce depends almost entirely on commissions.

Insurance companies pay fat commissions to their agents for selling whole-life policies - perhaps 80 percent of your first year's premium goes to paying the agent's commission - and the premiums for these polices are often five times that of term. By contrast, the typical commission to the agent who sells a term policy is about 10 percent.

It's no wonder, then, that agents push whole-life policies as if their livelihoods depend on it, because, well, they do. If whole-life policies were beneficial to consumers, our story would end here. The fact is the vast majority of those who need insurance should buy term.

Today, the annual premium on a $500,000 term policy for a healthy, nonsmoking 40-year-old male might be about $500. The same policy for a healthy woman, aged 30, might cost about $260 annually.

Not long ago you couldn't buy term policies with level premiums for periods of more than 10 or 15 years. Today you can easily find 20- and 30-year term policies.

Agents will argue that whole-life policies are superior because you can keep them the rest of your life and build up cash in them tax-free, which can then be borrowed.

That's true enough, but they don't tell you about the high fees and commissions built into whole life as well as surrender charges (if you want to cancel the policy) that often leave you with little or no cash value five and even 10 or 15 years after you take out the policy.

The point of a tax-free buildup of cash just isn't that powerful anymore, given the proliferation of IRAs, 401(k)s, and other tax-advantaged savings vehicles that have tiny commissions, much higher yields and complete portability.

So stick with term, and do your investing elsewhere.