Life insurance 101: A step-by-step guide
If you’re like many people, you may think that life insurance is too complicated or too expensive. But finding a policy that meets your needs and budget isn’t difficult—it just requires a little learning.
Understand the basics of life insurance—and your options—with this step-by-step guide.
Step 1: Life insurance basics
Life insurance provides peace of mind by giving you some financial protection for the life you’re building—and the most important people in it.
One of the biggest benefits is that it provides tax-free money to your loved ones when you die. Depending on the type of policy you get, you can enjoy other benefits, too.
Here’s how the two main types of life insurance policies work, and what they offer:
Term life insurance
How it works
- Lasts until a certain age or for a certain time period (anywhere from 1 to 30 years).
- When the term is up, you can renew your policy or let it end.
- Provides tax-free money to your loved ones when you die. They can use it to help cover your final expenses, pay off a mortgage, or as additional income.
- Tends to be less expensive than permanent insurance.
- May be able to be converted to a permanent policy.
Permanent life insurance
How it works
- You can’t outlive coverage, as long as you pay your premiums.
- Offers different policies, so you can customize your coverage to meet your needs. The four main types of policy options are:
- Whole life: You pay a fixed premium (monthly or annual payment) and get a fixed death benefit (the amount of money provided when you die) for life. The policy also accumulates cash value, which you can use during your lifetime.
- Universal life: Offers a flexible premium and death benefit. This means you can change the amount you pay (and the amount of coverage you have within limits) if you need to. Most of these types of policies accumulate cash value.
- Indexed universal life: Provides many of the same benefits as a universal life policy, with one key difference—the way interest is credited to the cash value of the policy. Instead of being a fixed rate, the interest is based on stock market indexes. This means it potentially could accumulate more cash value over time.
- Variable universal life: Combines the flexible premium and death benefit of universal life with the performance of investment accounts. Because these policies rely on investment performance, they may accumulate more or less cash value than standard whole life or universal life policies.
- Most policies build cash value. A portion of the premium pays for the cost of the coverage and any remaining amount accumulates cash value. That money grows over time and can be accessed using withdrawals or policy loans, or used to reduce future premium payments.
- Permanent policies offer tax advantages. In addition to providing tax-free money when you die, they also offer a way to grow your money faster in a tax-deferred account (the cash value). When done correctly, cash withdrawals from the policy generally aren’t taxed, either.
- The cash value can be used in your lifetime (while still providing a benefit when you die). It can supplement your retirement savings, or help pay for things like medical expenses or your kids’ college education.
- You control when and how you take payments from your policy. There’s no early withdrawal penalty, no required distributions, and payouts won’t lower your Social Security benefit.
Step 2: Choosing your coverage
There are 3 main factors to consider when choosing a life insurance policy:
- Duration of your need. Term insurance is great if you need coverage for a limited length of time, say 10 or 20 years. However, if you need lifelong coverage, permanent insurance will meet your needs, and may offer the added benefit of accumulating cash value.
- Cost. Term policies typically cost less than permanent policies. And with any type of life insurance, the cost of the coverage is based on your age, so the earlier you purchase, the lower your cost will be. Some term policies can be converted to permanent policies, if you’d like to change your coverage down the road.
- Personal risk tolerance. This applies to policies that offer cash value. Different options for how cash value grows are available. These range from those policies that earn interest based on a fixed rate set by the insurance company to those that grow based on investment choices you make in separate accounts. Which type of policy you select should be based on the level of risk you're comfortable with.
Quickly find out how much insurance you might need, and how much it could cost, with our life insurance calculator.
Do I need a separate policy if I already have one through work?
Typically, yes. Your employer-provided life insurance policy (usually a term policy) offers a base level of financial protection, but isn’t designed to meet 100% of your needs.
If you switch jobs, you may lose your coverage—along with any benefits you may have accumulated. An individual life insurance policy stays with you. If your life changes, you’ll have the flexibility to change the amount of coverage you have and how much you pay.
Step 3: When and how to get a policy
So, when’s the right time to buy a life insurance policy? The earlier the better—it’s not just for people who are married or have kids. The younger (and healthier) you are when you buy, the lower the cost will typically be.
How do I get a life insurance policy?
Start by talking with a financial professional. They can help you take a look at the big picture of your life and finances, and determine the best policy for your needs.
In exchange for the death benefit, life insurance products charge fees such as mortality and expense risk charges and surrender fees.
Withdrawals and policy loans may decrease the amount of death benefit and cash value. Surrender charges and other policy charges may apply to distributions taken from the policy. If the life insurance policy is a Modified Endowment Contract (MEC), distributions may be subject to income taxes.
Investing in variable universal life insurance involves risk, including possible loss of principal.
All guarantees and benefits of insurance policies are backed by the claims-paying ability of the issuing insurance company.