By Cathy Pareto
Life insurance protection comes in many forms, and not all policies are created equal, as you will soon discover. While the death benefit amounts may be the same, the costs, structure, durations, etc. vary tremendously across the types of policies.
Whole life insurance provides guaranteed insurance protection for the entire life of the insured, otherwise known as permanent coverage. These policies carry a "cash value" component that grows tax deferred at a contractually guaranteed amount (usually a low interest rate) until the contract is surrendered. The premiums are usually level for the life of the insured and the death benefit is guaranteed for the insured's lifetime.
With whole life payments, part of your premium is applied toward the insurance portion of your policy, another part of your premium goes toward administrative expenses and the balance of your premium goes toward the investment, or cash, portion of your policy. The interest you accumulate through the investment portion of your policy is tax-free until you withdraw it (if that is allowed under the terms of your policy). Any withdrawal you make will typically be tax free up to your basis in the policy. Your basis is the amount of premiums you have paid into the policy minus any prior dividends paid or previous withdrawals. Any amounts withdrawn above your basis may be taxed as ordinary income.
As you might expect, given their permanent protection, these policies tend to have a much higher initial premium than other types of life insurance. But, the cash build up in the policy can be used toward premium payments, provided cash is available. This is known as a participating whole life policy, which combines the benefits of permanent life insurance protection with a savings component, and provides the policy owner some additional payment flexibility. (Fore related reading, see Buying Life Insurance: Term Vs. Permanent and Permanent Life Policies: Whole Vs. Universal.)
Universal life insurance, also known as flexible premium or adjustable life, is a variation of whole life insurance. Like whole life, it is also a permanent policy providing cash value benefits based on current interest rates. The feature that distinguishes this policy from its whole life cousin is that the premiums, cash values and level amount of protection can each be adjusted up or down during the contract term as the insured's needs change. Cash values earn an interest rate that is set periodically by the insurance company and is generally guaranteed not to drop below a certain level. (For related reading, see Cashing In Your Life Insurance Policy.)
Variable life insurance is designed to combine the traditional protection and savings features of whole life insurance with the growth potential of investment funds. This type of policy is comprised of two distinct components: the general account and the separate account. The general account is the reserve or liability account of the insurance provider, and is not allocated to the individual policy. The separate account is comprised of various investment funds within the insurance company's portfolio, such as an equity fund, a money market fund, a bond fund, or some combination of these. Because of this underlying investment feature, the value of the cash and death benefit may fluctuate, thus the name "variable life". (For more on this, read Variable Vs. Variable Universal Life Insurance and Vary Your Options With Variable Insurance.)
Variable Universal Life
Variable universal life insurance combines the features of universal life with variable life and gives the consumer the flexibility of adjusting premiums, death benefits and the selection of investment choices. These policies are technically classified as securities and are therefore subject to Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) regulation and the oversight of the state insurance commissioner. Unfortunately, all the investment risk lies with the policy owner; as a result, the death benefit value may rise or fall depending on the success of the policy's underlying investments. However, policies may provide some type of guarantee that at least a minimum death benefit will be paid to beneficiaries.
One of the most commonly used policies is term life insurance. Term insurance can help protect your beneficiaries against financial loss resulting from your death; it pays the face amount of the policy, but only provides protection for a definite, but limited, amount of time. Term policies do not build cash values and the maximum term period is usually 30 years. Term policies are useful when there is a limited time needed for protection and when the dollars available for coverage are limited. The premiums for these types of policies are significantly lower than the costs for whole life. They also (initially) provide more insurance protection per dollar spent than any form of permanent policies. Unfortunately, the cost of premiums increases as the policy owner gets older and as the end of the specified term nears. (To learn more, read Buying Life Insurance: Term Vs. Permanent and What is term insurance?)