What Is Life Insurance?

Life insurance is a contract between an insurer and a policy owner. A life insurance policy guarantees the insurer pays a sum of money to named beneficiaries when the insured dies in exchange for the premiums paid by the policyholder during their lifetime.

For the contract to be enforceable, the life insurance application must accurately disclose the insured’s past and current health conditions and high-risk activities.

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Key Takeaways

  • Life insurance is a legally binding contract that pays a death benefit to the policy owner when the insured dies.
  • For a life insurance policy to remain in force, the policyholder must pay a single premium up front or pay regular premiums over time.
  • When the insured dies, the policy’s named beneficiaries will receive the policy’s face value, or death benefit.
  • Term life insurance policies expire after a certain number of years. Permanent life insurance policies remain active until the insured dies, stops paying premiums, or surrenders the policy.
  • A life insurance policy is only as good as the financial strength of the company that issues it. State guaranty funds may pay claims if the issuer can’t.

Types of Life Insurance

Many different types of life insurance are available to meet all sorts of needs and preferences. Depending on the short- or long-term needs of the person to be insured, the major choice of whether to select temporary or permanent life insurance is important to consider.

Term life insurance

Term life insurance lasts a certain number of years, then ends. You choose the term when you take out the policy. Common terms are 10, 20, or 30 years. The best term life insurance policies balance affordability with long-term financial strength.

  • Decreasing Term Life Insurance—decreasing term is renewable term life insurance with coverage decreasing over the life of the policy at a predetermined rate.
  • Convertible Term Life Insurance—convertible term life insurance allows policyholders to convert a term policy to permanent insurance.
  • Renewable Term Life Insurance—is a yearly renewable term life policy that provides a quote for the year the policy is purchased. Premiums increase annually and is usually the least expensive term insurance in the beginning.

Permanent life insurance

Permanent life insurance stays in force for the insured’s entire life unless the policyholder stops paying the premiums or surrenders the policy. It’s typically more expensive than term.

  • Whole Lifewhole life insurance is a type of permanent life insurance that accumulates cash value. Cash value life insurance allows the policyholder to use the cash value for many purposes, such as a source of loans or cash or to pay policy premiums.
  • Universal Life—a type of permanent life insurance with a cash value component that earns interest, universal life features flexible premiums. Unlike term and whole life, the premiums can be adjusted over time and can be designed with a level death benefit or an increasing death benefit.
  • Indexed Universal—this is a type of universal life insurance that lets the policyholder earn a fixed or equity-indexed rate of return on the cash value component.
  • Variable Universal—with variable universal life insurance, the policyholder is allowed to invest the policy’s cash value in an available separate account. It also has flexible premiums and can be designed with a level death benefit or an increasing death benefit.

Burial or final expense insurance is a type of permanent life insurance that has a small death benefit. Despite the names, beneficiaries can use the death benefit as they wish.

Disclosure

We publish unbiased product reviews; our opinions are our own and are not influenced by payment we receive from our advertising partners. Learn more about how we review products and read our advertiser disclosure for how we make money. And see our complete list of the best companies for different types of policies.

Top-Rated Companies to Compare

Company AM Best Rating Coverage Capacity Issue Ages Policies Offered
Prudential
Best Overall
Compare Quotes on Policygenius
A+  Not Stated 18-75 Term, variable, and  universal
State Farm
Best Instant Issue
Compare Quotes on Policygenius
A++ Not Stated 18-75 Term, whole, and universal
Transamerica
Best Value
Compare Quotes on Policygenius
Not Stated  18-80 Term, whole, universal, and final expense
Northwestern Mutual
Best Whole Life
A++  Not Stated 0-80 Term, whole, and universal
New York Life
Best Term Policies
Compare Quotes on Policygenius
A++  $5,000,000 and up  0-90 Term, whole, and universal
Mutual of Omaha
Best for No Medical Exams
Compare Quotes on Policygenius
A+  $100,000 and up (term life) 0-85 Term, whole, universal, children’s, and accidental death
USAA
Best for Military
A++ $10,000,000 0-85 Term and permanent

Term vs. Permanent Life Insurance

Term life insurance differs from permanent life insurance in several ways but tends to best meet the needs of most people. Term life insurance only lasts for a set period of time and pays a death benefit should the policyholder die before the term has expired. Permanent life insurance stays in effect as long as the policyholder pays the premium. Another key difference involves premiums—term life is generally much less expensive compared to permanent life because it does not involve building a cash value.

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Watch Now: What Is Life Insurance?

Before you apply for life insurance, you should analyze your financial situation and determine how much money would be required to maintain your beneficiaries’ standard of living or meet the need for which you’re purchasing a policy.

For example, if you are the primary caretaker and have children who are 2 and 4 years old, you would want enough insurance to cover your custodial responsibilities until your children are grown up and able to support themselves. You might research the cost to hire a nanny and a housekeeper or to use commercial child care and a cleaning service, then perhaps add some money for education. Include any outstanding mortgage and retirement needs for your spouse in your life insurance calculation. Especially if the spouse earns significantly less or is a stay at home parent. Add up what these costs would be over the next 16 or so years, add more for inflation, and that’s the death benefit you might want to buy—if you can afford it.

How Much Life Insurance to Buy

Many factors can affect the cost of life insurance premiums. Certain things may be beyond your control, but other criteria can be managed to potentially bring down the cost before applying.

After being approved for an insurance policy, if your health has improved and you’ve made positive lifestyle changes, you can request to be considered for change in risk class. Even if it is found that you’re poorer health than at the initial underwriting, your premiums will not go up. If you’re found to be in better health then you can expect your premiums to decrease.

STEP 1 - Determine How Much You Need

Think about what expenses would need to be covered in the event of your death. Things like mortgage, college tuition, and other debts, not to mention funeral expenses. Plus, income replacement is a major factor if your spouse or loved ones need cash flow and are not able to provide it on their own.

There are helpful tools online to calculate the lump sum that can satisfy any potential expenses that would need to be covered.

What Affects Your Life Insurance Premiums and Costs?

STEP 2 - Prepare Your Application

  • Age: This is the most important factor because life expectancy is the biggest determinant of risk for the insurance company.
  • Gender: Because women statistically live longer, they generally pay lower rates than a male of the same age.
  • Smoking: A person who smokes is at risk for many health issues that could shorten life and increase risk-based premiums.
  • Health: Medical exams for most policies include screening for health conditions like heart disease, diabetes and cancer, and related medical metrics that can indicate risk.
  • Lifestyle: Dangerous lifestyles can make premiums much more expensive.
  • Family medical history: If you have evidence of major disease in your immediate family, your risk of developing certain conditions is much higher.
  • Driving record: A history of moving violations or drunk driving can dramatically increase the cost of insurance premiums.

Life Insurance Buying Guide

Life insurance applications generally require personal and family medical history along with beneficiary information. You will also likely need to submit to a medical exam and will need to disclose any preexisting medical conditions, history of moving violations, or DUIs, as well as any dangerous hobbies such as auto racing or skydiving.

Standard forms of identification will also be needed before a policy can be written, such as your Social Security card, driver's license, and/or U.S. passport.

STEP 3 - Compare Policy Quotes

When you've assembled all of your necessary information, you can gather multiple quotes from different providers based on your research. Prices can differ markedly from company to company, so it's important to go to the effort to find the best combination of policy, company rating, and premium cost. Because life insurance is something you will likely pay on a monthly basis for decades, it can save an enormous amount of money to find the best policy to fit your needs.

Benefits of Life Insurance

There are many benefits to having life insurance. Below are some of the most important features and protections offered by life insurance policies.

Most people use life insurance to provide money to beneficiaries who would suffer a financial hardship upon the insured’s death. However, for wealthy individuals, the tax advantages of life insurance, including the tax-deferred growth of cash value, tax-free dividends, and tax-free death benefits, can provide additional strategic opportunities.

Avoiding Taxesthe death benefit of a life insurance policy is usually tax-free. Wealthy individuals sometimes buy permanent life insurance within a trust to help pay the estate taxes that will be due upon their death. This strategy helps to preserve the value of the estate for their heirs. Tax avoidance is a law-abiding strategy for minimizing one’s tax liability and should not be confused with tax evasion, which is illegal.

Who Needs Life Insurance?

Life insurance provides financial support to surviving dependents or other beneficiaries after the death of an insured policyholder. Here are some examples of people who may need life insurance:

  • Parents with minor childrenif a parent dies, the loss of their income or caregiving skills could create a financial hardship. Life insurance can make sure the kids will have the financial resources they need until they can support themselves.
  • Parents with special-needs adult children—for children who require lifelong care and will never be self-sufficient, life insurance can make sure their needs will be met after their parents pass away. The death benefit can be used to fund a special needs trust that a fiduciary will manage for the adult child’s benefit.
  • Adults who own property together—married or not, if the death of one adult would mean that the other could no longer afford loan payments, upkeep, and taxes on the property, life insurance may be a good idea. One example would be an engaged couple who take out a joint mortgage to buy their first house.
  • Seniors who want to leave money to adult children who provide their care—many adult children sacrifice time at work to care for an elderly parent who needs help. This help may also include direct financial support. Life insurance can help reimburse the adult child’s costs when the parent passes away.
  • Young adults whose parents incurred private student loan debt or cosigned a loan for them—young adults without dependents rarely need life insurance, but if a parent will be on the hook for a child’s debt after their death, the child may want to carry enough life insurance to pay off that debt.
  • Children or young adults who want to lock in low rates—the younger and healthier you are, the lower your insurance premiums. A 20-something adult might buy a policy even without having dependents if there is an expectation to have them in the future.
  • Stay at home spouses - stay at home spouse should have life insurance as they have significant economic value based on the work they do in the home. According to Salary.com, the economic value of a stay at home parent would have been equivalent to an annual salary of $162,581 in 2018.
  • Wealthy families who expect to owe estate taxes—life insurance can provide funds to cover the taxes and keep the full value of the estate intact.
  • Families who cant afford burial and funeral expenses—a small life insurance policy can provide funds to honor a loved one’s passing.
  • Businesses with key employees—if the death of a key employee, such as a CEO, would create a severe financial hardship for a firm, that firm may have an insurable interest that will allow it to purchase a life insurance policy on that employee.
  • Married pensioners—instead of choosing between a pension payout that offers a spousal benefit and one that doesn’t, pensioners can choose to accept their full pension and use some of the money to buy life insurance to benefit their spouse. This strategy is called pension maximization.
  • Those with preexisting conditions—such as cancer, diabetes, or smoking. Note, however, that some insurers may deny coverage for such individuals, or else charge very high rates.

Considerations Before Buying Life Insurance

Research policy options and company reviews—because life insurance policies are a major expense and commitment, it's critical to do proper due diligence to make sure the company you choose has a solid track record and financial strength, given that your heirs may not receive any death benefit for many decades into the future. Investopedia has evaluated scores of companies that offer all different types of insurance and rated the best in numerous categories.

Life insurance can be a prudent financial tool to hedge your bets and provide protection for your loved ones in case of death should you die while the policy is in force. However, there are situations in which it makes less sense—such as buying too much or insuring those whose income doesn't need to be replaced. So, it's important to consider the following:

What expenses couldn't be met if you died? If your spouse has a strong income and you don't have any children, maybe it's not warranted. It is still important to consider the impact of your potential death on a spouse and consider how much financial support they would need to grieve without worrying about returning to work before they’re ready. However, if both spouses' income is necessary to maintain a desired lifestyle or meet financial commitments, then both spouses may need separate life insurance coverage.

If you're buying a policy on another family member's life, it's important to ask—what are you trying to insure? Children and seniors really don't have any meaningful income to replace, but burial expenses may need to be covered in the event of their death. Beyond burial expenses, a parent may also want to protect their child’s future insurability by purchasing a moderate sized policy when they are young. Doing so allows that parent to insure that their child can financially protect their future family. Parents are only allowed to purchase life insurance on their children up to 25% of the in force policy on their own lives.

Could investing the money that would be paid in premiums for permanent insurance over the course of a policy earn a better return over time? As a hedge against uncertainty, consistent saving and investing—for example, self-insuring—might make more sense in some cases if a significant income doesn't need to be replaced or if policy investment returns on cash value are overly conservative.

How Life Insurance Works

A life insurance policy has two main components—a death benefit and a premium. Term life insurance has these two components, but permanent or whole life insurance policies also have a cash value component.

  1. Death Benefit—the death benefit or face value is the amount of money the insurance company guarantees to the beneficiaries identified in the policy when the insured dies. The insured might be a parent, and the beneficiaries might be their children, for example. The insured will choose the desired death benefit amount based on the beneficiaries’ estimated future needs. The insurance company will determine whether there is an insurable interest and if the proposed insured qualifies for the coverage based on the company’s underwriting requirements related to age, health, and any hazardous activities in which the proposed insured participates.
  2. Premiumpremiums are the money the policyholder pays for insurance. The insurer must pay the death benefit when the insured dies if the policyholder pays the premiums as required, and premiums are determined in part by how likely it is that the insurer will have to pay the policy’s death benefit based on the insured’s life expectancy. Factors that influence life expectancy include the insured’s age, gender, medical history, occupational hazards, and high-risk hobbies. Part of the premium also goes toward the insurance company’s operating expenses. Premiums are higher on policies with larger death benefits, individuals who are at higher risk, and permanent policies that accumulate cash value.
  3. Cash Value—the cash value of permanent life insurance serves two purposes. It is a savings account that the policyholder can use during the life of the insured; the cash accumulates on a tax-deferred basis. Some policies may have restrictions on withdrawals depending on how the money is to be used. For example, the policyholder might take out a loan against the policy’s cash value and have to pay interest on the loan principal. The policyholder can also use the cash value to pay premiums or purchase additional insurance. The cash value is a living benefit that remains with the insurance company when the insured dies. Any outstanding loans against the cash value will reduce the policy’s death benefit.

Good to Know

The policy owner and the insured are usually the same person, but sometimes they may be different. For example, a business might buy key person insurance on a crucial employee such as a CEO, or an insured might sell their own policy to a third party for cash in a life settlement.

Life Insurance Riders and Policy Changes

Many insurance companies offer policyholders the option to customize their policies to accommodate their needs. Riders are the most common way policyholders may modify or change their plan. There are many riders, but availability depends on the provider. The policyholder will typically pay an additional premium for each rider or a fee to exercise the rider, though some policies include certain riders in their base premium.

  • The accidental death benefit rider provides additional life insurance coverage in the event the insured’s death is accidental.
  • The waiver of premium rider relieves the policyholder of making premium payments if the insured becomes disabled and unable to work. 
  • The disability income rider pays a monthly income in the event the policyholder becomes unable to work for several months or longer due to a serious illness or injury.
  • Upon diagnosis of terminal illness, the accelerated death benefit rider allows the insured to collect a portion or all of the death benefit.
  • The long-term care rider is a type of accelerated death benefit that can be used to pay for nursing-home, assisted-living, or in-home care when the insured requires help with activities of daily living, such as bathing, eating, and using the toilet.
  • A guaranteed insurability rider lets the policyholder buy additional insurance at a later date without a medical review.

Borrowing Money—most permanent life insurance accumulates cash value that the policyholder can borrow against. Technically, you are borrowing money from the insurance company and using your cash value as collateral. Unlike with other types of loans, the policyholder’s credit score is not a factor. Repayment terms can be flexible, and the loan interest goes back into the policyholder’s cash value account. Policy loans can reduce the policy’s death benefit, however.

Each policy is unique to the insured and insurer. It’s important to review your policy document to understand what risks your policy covers, how much it will pay your beneficiaries, and under what circumstances.

Funding Retirement—policies with a cash value or investment component can provide a source of retirement income. This opportunity can come with high fees and a lower death benefit, so it may only be a good option for individuals who have maxed out other tax-advantaged savings and investment accounts. The pension maximization strategy described earlier is another way life insurance can fund retirement.

It’s prudent to reevaluate your life insurance needs annually or after significant life events, such as divorce, marriage, the birth or adoption of a child, or major purchases, such as a house. You may need to update the policy’s beneficiaries, increase your coverage, or even reduce your coverage.

Qualifying for Life Insurance

Insurers evaluate each life insurance applicant on a case-by-case basis, and with hundreds of insurers to choose from, almost anyone can find an affordable policy that at least partially meets their needs. In 2018 there were 841 life insurance and annuity companies in the United States, according to the Insurance Information Institute.

On top of that, many life insurance companies sell multiple types and sizes of policies, and some specialize in meeting specific needs, such as policies for people with chronic health conditions. There are also brokers who specialize in life insurance and know what different companies offer. Applicants can work with a broker free of charge to find the insurance they need. This means that almost anyone can get some type of life insurance policy if they look hard enough and are willing to pay a high enough price or accept a perhaps less-than-ideal death benefit.

Insurance is not just for the healthy and wealthy, and because the insurance industry is much broader than many consumers realize, getting life insurance may be possible and affordable even if previous applications have been denied or quotes have been unaffordable.

In general, the younger and healthier you are, the easier it will be to qualify for life insurance, and the older and less healthy you are, the harder it will be. Certain lifestyle choices, such as using tobacco or engaging in risky hobbies such as skydiving, also make it harder to qualify or lead to higher rates.

Who needs life insurance?

Life insurance is most useful for people who need to provide security for a spouse, children, or other family members in the event of their death. Life insurance death benefits, depending on the policy amount, can help beneficiaries pay off a mortgage, cover college tuition, or help fund retirement. Permanent life insurance also features a cash value component that builds over time.

What Affects Your Life Insurance Premiums?

  • Age
  • Gender
  • Smoking
  • Health
  • Lifestyle
  • Family medical history
  • Driving record

What are the benefits of life insurance?

  • Payouts are tax-free—death benefits are paid as a lump sum and are not subject to federal income tax because they are not considered income for beneficiaries.
  • Dependents don't have to worry about living expenses—most policy calculators recommend a multiple of your gross income equal to seven to 10 years that can cover major expenses like mortgages and college tuition without the surviving spouse or children having to take out loans.
  • Final expenses can be covered—funeral expenses can be significant and can be avoided with a burial policy or with standard term or permanent life policies.
  • Policies can supplement retirement savings—permanent life policies such as whole, universal, and variable life insurance can offer cash value in addition to death benefits, which can augment other savings in retirement.

How do you qualify for life insurance?

Life insurance is available to anyone, but the cost or premium level can vary greatly based on the risk level an individual presents based on factors like age, health, and lifestyle. Life insurance applications generally require the customer to provide medical records and medical history and submit to a medical exam. Some types of life insurance such as guaranteed approval life don't require medical exams but generally have much higher premiums and involve an initial waiting period before taking effect and offering a death benefit.

How does life insurance work?

Life insurance policies all offer a death benefit in exchange for paying premiums to the insurance provider during the term of the policy. One popular type of life insurance—term life insurance— only lasts for a set amount of time, such as 10 or 20 years during which the policyholder needs to offset the financial impact of losing income. Permanent life insurance also features a death benefit but lasts for the life of the policyholder as long as premiums are maintained and can include cash value that builds over time.

More Life Insurance Company Reviews
Company Rating
AAA Life Insurance 3.4
AARP Life Insurance -
AFLAC Life Insurance -
AIG Life Insurance 3.6
Allstate Life Insurance 4.5
American Fidelity Life -
American Income Life -
Ameritas Life Insurance -
Assurity Life Insurance -
Bankers Life Insurance 3.4
Banner Life Insurance 3.4
Bestow Life Insurance 3.3
Brighthouse Life Insurance 3.2
CMFG Life Insurance 3.7
Colonial Penn Life Insurance 3.2
Continental Life Insurance -
CUNA Mutual Life -
Ethos Life Insurance 3.1
Family First Life Insurance -
Fidelity Life Insurance 3.2
Foresters Life Insurance -
Freedom Life Insurance 2.9
GEICO Life Insurance 3.7
Genworth Life Insurance -
Gerber Life Insurance 3.2
Globe Life 2.6
Guardian Life Insurance 3.7
Haven Life Insurance -
Jackson National Life -
John Hancock Life 3.9
Kemper Life Insurance -
Ladder Life Insurance -
Liberty Mutual Life -
Lincoln Heritage Life 3.6
Lumico Life Insurance -
Manhattan Life Insurance -
Mass Mutual Life Insurance 3.9
Max Life Insurance -
MetLife Life Insurance 3.2
Midland National Life 4.7
Mutual of Omaha Life 4
National Life Group -
Nationwide Life Insurance 4.7
Navy Federal Life Insurance -
NEA Life Insurance Company -
New York Life 4.2
North American Life -
Northwestern Mutual Life 4.1
Oxford Life Insurance Company -
Pacific Life Insurance -
Primerica Life Insurance 3.1
Protective Life Insurance 3.8
Prudential Life Insurance 3.8
Securian Life Insurance -
SelectQuote Life Insurance -
State Farm Life Insurance 4
Texas Life Insurance -
Transamerica Life Insurance 3.9
TruStage Life Insurance -
Unum Life Insurance -
USAA Life Insurance 3.4
VA Life Insurance -
Zander Life Insurance -