Cash-value life insurance, also known as permanent life insurance, includes a death benefit in addition to cash value accumulation. While variable life, whole life and universal life insurance all have built-in cash value, term life does not.

Once you have accumulated a sizeable cash value, you can use these funds to:

  • Pay your policy premium
  • Take out a loan at a lower rate than banks offer
  • Create an investment portfolio that maintains and accumulates wealth
  • Supplement retirement income

So, how exactly does cash value accumulate in your permanent life insurance policy? The fine points vary depending on the type of policy you have and each individual life insurance company. However, this is typically how the process works:

Premium Payments are Divvied Up

When you make premium payments on a cash-value life insurance policy, one portion of the payment is allotted to the policy’s death benefit (based on your age, your health, and other underwriting factors). The second portion covers the insurance company’s operating costs and profits. The rest of the premium payment will go toward your policy’s cash value. The life insurance company generally invests this money in a conservative-yield investment. As you continue to pay premiums on the policy and earn more interest, the cash value grows over the years.

Accumulation Slows Over Time

When you have cash-value life insurance, you generally pay a level premium. In the early years of the policy, a higher percentage of your premium goes toward the cash value. Over time, the amount allotted to cash value decreases. It’s similar to how a home mortgage works: In the early years, you pay mostly interest while in the later years most of your mortgage payment goes toward principal.

Each year as you grow older, the cost of insuring your life gets more expensive for the life insurance company. (This is why the older you are, the more it costs to purchase a term life policy.) When it comes to cash-value insurance, the insurance company factors in these increasing costs.

In the early years of your policy, a larger portion of your premium is invested and allocated to the cash value account. Generally, this cash value grow can grow quickly in the early years of the policy. Then in later years, the cash value accumulation slows as you grow older and more of the premium is applied to the cost of insurance.

Different Policies Accumulate Cash Value in Different Ways

Of course, cash value accumulation varies depending on the type of policy you have.

  • Whole life policies provide “guaranteed” cash value accounts that grow according to a formula the insurance company determines.
  • Universal life policies accumulate cash value based on current interest rates.
  • Variable life policies invest funds in subaccounts, which operate like mutual funds. The cash value grows or falls based on how well these subaccounts perform.

Step-by-Step: How Cash Value Grows

Let’s say you purchase a whole life policy with a $1 million death benefit when you’re 25 years old. You consistently pay your monthly premium, and every month a percentage of that payment is goes toward the cash value of your policy.

Thirty years after you purchase the policy, you’re 55 years old, and your cash value account has grown to $500,000. Because the policy offers a $1 million death benefit and you already have a cash value of $500,000, the insurance costs must cover the remaining $500,000.

Ten years later, your policy’s cash value has grown to $750,000. As you are 65 years old now, the cost of insuring your life is much higher. However, when you factor in your significant cash value, the policy is really only insuring $250,000. The rest of the death benefit that the policy will pay will come from the cash value.

This is a greatly simplified example: The numbers will vary significantly depending on the life insurance company, the type of policy you purchase and, in some cases, current interest rates.

The Bottom Line

Consult your insurance advisor to determine how to calculate potential cash value accumulation of your permanent life insurance policy. Then, be sure it doesn't go to waste. Cash value that is left in your policy at your death goes back to the insurance company, not to your heirs. Read 6 Ways To Capture The Cash Value In Life Insurance for details on strategies to consider.

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