If anyone relies on you financially, you need life insurance. It’s virtually obligatory if you are a spouse or the parent of dependent children. But you may also require life insurance if you are someone’s ex-spouse, life partner, a child of dependent parents, the sibling of a dependent adult, an employee, an employer or a business partner.
Life insurance does not simply apply a monetary value to someone’s life. Instead, it helps compensate for the inevitable financial consequences that accompany the loss of life. Strategically, it helps those left behind cover the costs of final expenses, outstanding debts and mortgages, planned educational expenses and lost income.
Life insurance is a contract (called a policy). A policy is a contract between a life insurance company and someone (or occasionally something, like a trust) who has a financial interest in the life and livelihood of someone else. The insurance company pools the premiums of policyholders and pays out claims—called a death benefit—in the event of a death.
There are two broad varieties of life insurance about which you should become aware—term and permanent. Term life is the simplest, the least expensive and the most widely applicable. With term life, a life insurance company bases the policy premium on the probability that the insured will die within a stated term—typically 10, 20 or 30 years. The premiums are guaranteed for the length of the term, after which the policy becomes cost-prohibitive to maintain or you decide to let it lapse. Yes, this means that you may very well pay premiums for decades and “get nothing out of it.” But that’s good news, because it means you’re winning at the game of life.
Permanent life insurance includes this same probability-of-death calculus, but also includes a savings mechanism. This mechanism, which is often referred to as “cash value,” is designed to help the policy exist into perpetuity. Whole life—the original—has an investment component much like bonds or CDs (but backed by the insurance company). Variable life offers investment options more like mutual funds. Universal life was designed as a less expensive permanent life insurance alternative with added flexibility, but increased interest rate risk for the owner. Although they tend to be more complex and expensive, there are financial dilemmas—often related to business planning and/or high-net-worth estate planning—for which permanent life insurance may be the only solution. There are a few select instances where permanent policies are engineered to maximize the tax-privileged growth of cash value. They are, however, only appropriate for a small number of people and still dependent on numerous other factors to work the way they’re intended.