A life insurance policy is a contract with an insurance company. In exchange for premium payments, the insurance company provides a lump-sum payment, known as a death benefit, to beneficiaries upon the insured's death.
Depending on the contract, other events such as terminal illness or critical illness can also trigger payment. The policyholder typically pays a premium, either regularly or as one lump sum. Other expenses, such as funeral expenses, can also be included in the benefits.
Life policies are legal contracts and the terms of the contract describe the limitations of the insured events. Specific exclusions are often written into the contract to limit the liability of the insurer; common examples are claims relating to suicide, fraud, war, riot, and civil commotion.
Typically, life insurance is chosen based on the needs and goals of the owner. Term life insurance generally provides protection for a set period of time, while permanent insurance, such as whole and universal life, provides lifetime coverage. It's important to note that death benefits from all types of life insurance are generally income tax-free.
There are many varieties of life insurance. Some of the more common types are discussed below.
Term life insurance:
Term life insurance is designed to provide financial protection for a specific period of time, such as 10 or 20 years. With traditional term insurance, the premium payment amount stays the same for the coverage period you select. After that period, policies may offer continued coverage, usually at a substantially higher premium payment rate. Term life insurance is generally less expensive than permanent life insurance.
Permanent life insurance:
Permanent life insurance is life insurance that covers the remaining lifetime of the insured. A permanent insurance policy accumulates a cash value up to its date of maturation. The owner can access the money in the cash value by withdrawing money, borrowing the cash value, or surrendering the policy and receiving the surrender value.
The three basic types of permanent insurance: whole life, universal life, and endowment.
Universal life insurance:
Universal life insurance is a type of permanent life insurance designed to provide lifetime coverage. Unlike whole life insurance, universal life insurance policies are flexible and may allow you to raise or lower your premium payment or coverage amounts throughout your lifetime. Additionally, due to its lifetime coverage, universal life typically has higher premium payments than term.
Whole life insurance:
Whole life insurance is a type of permanent life insurance designed to provide lifetime coverage. Because of the lifetime coverage period, whole life usually has higher premium payments than term life. Policy premium payments are typically fixed, and, unlike term, whole life has a cash value, which functions as a savings component and may accumulate tax-deferred over time.
The endowment policy is a life insurance contract designed to pay a lump sum after a specific term (on its 'maturity') or on death. Typical maturities are ten, fifteen or twenty years up to a certain age limit. Some policies also pay out in the case of critical illness.
Policies are typically traditional with-profits or unit-linked (including those with unitized with-profits funds).
Endowments can be cashed in early (or surrendered) and the holder then receives the surrender value which is determined by the insurance company depending on how long the policy has been running and how much has been paid into it.