What Is Life Insurance and How Does It Work?

Life insurance pays a death benefit to your beneficiaries, which can help cover lost income or pay off debt.
Georgia Rose
Andrew Marder
By Andrew Marder and  Georgia Rose 
Edited by Lisa Green

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Originally designed to help cover burial costs and care for widows and orphans, life insurance is now a flexible and powerful financial product. Roughly half of Americans have some sort of life insurance, according to insurance research organization LIMRA

LIMRA. Facts About Life 2021. Accessed Apr 21, 2023.

Life insurance can be issued as either an individual or group policy. We’ll be looking at individual policies, not the group life insurance commonly issued through work.

What is life insurance?

Life insurance is a contract between you and an insurance company. In exchange for regular premium payments, the insurance company pays a death benefit to your beneficiaries when you die. Depending on the type of policy you buy, life insurance can cover natural deaths, accidental deaths, and even illness or injuries while you're still alive.

There are basically two types of life insurance: term life and permanent life. Term life covers you for a fixed amount of time while permanent life insurance can cover you until the end of your life.

Generally, term life insurance is cheaper to purchase than permanent life. However, permanent life policies, like whole life insurance, build cash value over time and don’t expire, if you’ve paid your premiums.

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What does life insurance cover?

The main purpose of life insurance is to provide money for your beneficiaries when you die. But how you die can determine whether the insurer pays out the death benefit. Depending on the type of policy you have, life insurance can cover:

  • Natural deaths. Dying from a heart attack, disease or old age are examples of natural deaths. If you have a pre-existing condition when you get life insurance, it may be excluded from coverage. Check the details of a policy for a full list of what’s covered before you buy.

  • Accidental deaths. Accidents may include car crashes, drowning or poisoning. If you only want accidental coverage, you can buy accidental death benefit insurance. This type of coverage does not cover natural deaths. You can add it as a rider to an existing policy or buy standalone coverage.

  • Suicide. Most life insurance policies cover suicide, but only if it occurs after the policy's waiting period — typically the first two years of the policy.

  • Homicide. Life insurance often covers homicides, but the circumstances of the death can affect the payout. For example, if a beneficiary murders the insured person, the killer won’t receive the death benefit.

  • Illness or injuries. Some policies offer coverage for illness or injuries while you’re still alive. For example, a critical or chronic illness rider covers conditions like cancer, as well as conditions that permanently inhibit your daily activities. An accelerated death benefit rider provides access to your death benefit if you’re diagnosed with a terminal illness. Accidental death and dismemberment insurance covers both accidental deaths and severe injuries while you’re still alive, and can be added as a rider or bought as a standalone policy.

What does life insurance not cover?

  • Criminal activities. In general, if you die while committing a crime, your beneficiaries won’t receive the death benefit. This can apply to drug and alcohol abuse. For example, if you die while driving drunk — an illegal activity — the policy typically won’t cover the death.

  • High-risk hobbies. Unless your policy specifically covers hazardous hobbies like skydiving, dangerous activities are typically not covered.

  • Misrepresentation. If you lie on your life insurance application, the insurer may cancel your policy. Make sure you're as honest and open as possible when applying for coverage.

How does life insurance work?

Life insurance covers the life of the insured person. The policyholder, who can be a different person from the insured, pays premiums to an insurance company. In return, the insurer pays out a sum of money to the beneficiaries listed on the policy.

How term life insurance works

Term life insurance covers you for a period of time chosen at purchase, such as 10, 20 or 30 years. If you die during the covered period, the policy will pay your beneficiaries the amount stated in the policy. If you don’t die during that time, no one gets paid.

Term life is popular because it offers large payouts at a lower cost than permanent life. It’s also a temporary solution, though one that could cover you for a substantial portion of your life.

There are some variations of typical term life insurance policies. Convertible policies allow you to convert them to permanent life policies at a higher rate, allowing for longer, more flexible coverage. Decreasing term life policies, such as mortgage protection insurance, have a death benefit that declines over time, often lined up with large debts that are slowly paid off.

What does term life insurance cover?

Reasons you may want term life insurance include:

  • You want to make sure your child has money to go to college if you die.

  • You want life insurance to cover large debts like a mortgage that you don’t want to saddle your spouse with after your death.

  • You want to replace your income if you die during your working years when people depend on you financially.

How permanent life insurance works

Permanent life insurance policies typically cover you until death, assuming you pay your premiums. Whole life is the most well-known type of permanent insurance, but there are other flavors, including universal life and variable life.

Permanent life insurance policies build cash value as they age. A portion of the premium payments is added to the cash value, which can earn interest.

The cash value of whole life insurance policies grows at a fixed rate, while the cash value within universal policies can fluctuate.

You can use the cash value of your life insurance while you’re still alive. You can borrow from it, make withdrawals or just use the interest payments to cover the premium later in life. You can even surrender the policy, trading your death benefit for the value currently in the account, minus some fees.

All of these options can create complex tax issues, so be sure you talk to a fee-based financial advisor before tapping your cash value.

Whole life insurance

Whole life policies, with their guaranteed payouts, potential cash value and fixed premiums, sound like great products, but that all comes at a cost — cash. Whole life premiums are a lot higher than term life insurance premiums.

If you compare average life insurance rates, you can see the difference. For example, $500,000 of whole life coverage for a healthy 30-year-old woman costs around $4,015 annually, on average. That same level of coverage with a 20-year term life policy would cost an average of about $188 annually, according to Quotacy, a brokerage firm.

Be wary of thinking about whole life insurance as an investment. Many investors can find better options elsewhere.

What does whole life insurance cover?

Reasons you may need whole life insurance include:

Universal life insurance

A universal life insurance policy also provides permanent coverage, but it allows for some flexibility. Universal life policies allow you to make larger or smaller payments, depending on your finances or how the investment account performs. If things go well, you may be able to stop making payments and let the cash value cover the cost. If not, you may need to increase the amount you pay to cover the shortfall.

Other permanent life insurance options

Indexed universal life, or IUL, is a type of universal life insurance that puts investments into index funds, chosen by the insurer. IUL policies are more complicated than plain universal life policies, often including caps on returns and complex fee structures.

Variable universal life is more flexible and more complex than IUL. It allows policyholders to invest in many other channels to try to increase their returns. However, those investments come with more risk.

Variable life is another permanent life insurance option. It sounds a lot like variable universal life but is actually different. It’s an alternative to whole life with a fixed payout. However, policyholders can use stocks and other investments to grow the cash value of the policy. Both variable universal life and variable life come with increased risk, and both are treated as securities — i.e., stocks and bonds — by the federal government.

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Life insurance basics: Terminology, coverage needs and cost

Life insurance policies can differ widely. There’s life insurance for families, high-risk buyers, couples and many other groups. Even with all those differences, most policies have some common characteristics. Here are some life insurance basics to help you better understand how coverage works.

Common life insurance terminology

  • Premiums are the payments you make to the insurance company. For term life policies, these cover the cost of your insurance and administrative costs. With a permanent policy, you’ll also be able to pay money into a cash-value account.

  • Beneficiaries are the people who receive money when the covered person dies. Choosing life insurance beneficiaries is an important step in planning the impact of your life insurance. Beneficiaries are often spouses, children or parents, but you can choose anyone.

  • Death benefit refers to the total amount of money the beneficiaries will be paid when the covered person dies. You choose the life insurance face value when you buy a policy, and the amount is sometimes — but not always — a fixed value.

  • Riders are options you can add to a life insurance policy. You might want your premiums covered if you’re no longer able to work, or maybe you’d like to add a child to your policy. By paying for a life insurance rider, you can add those and other features.

Who needs life insurance?

Like all insurance, life insurance was designed to solve a financial problem. Life insurance is important because when you die, your income disappears. If you have a spouse, kids or anyone dependent on you financially, they’re going to be left without support.

Even if no one depends on your income, there will still be costs associated with your death. That can mean your spouse, child or relatives will have to pay for burial and other end-of-life expenses. As you think about the amount of life insurance coverage you need, consider your beneficiaries and what they’ll need.

If no one depends on your income and your funeral expenses won’t damage anyone’s finances, life insurance may be a thing you can skip. But if your death will be a financial burden on your loved ones immediately or in the long term, you may need a life insurance policy.

How much life insurance do you need?

The amount of life insurance you need depends on what you’re trying to do. If you’re just covering end-of-life expenses, you won’t need as much as if you’re trying to replace lost income. The calculator below can help you estimate how much life insurance you need.

If you’re interested in a permanent policy, connect with a fee-only financial advisor. The advisor can help you understand how a life insurance policy fits into your financial plan.

How life insurance is priced

Your health is one of the most important parts of determining your life insurance premiums. Healthier people are less likely to die soon, which means companies can charge them less for life insurance. Younger people are also less likely to die soon, so life insurance is cheaper (on average) for younger buyers.

Women live longer, nonsmokers live longer, people without complex medical problems live longer, and on and on goes the list. People in these groups will normally get preferential pricing for life insurance.

Many applications require a life insurance medical exam. The insurer will check your weight, blood pressure, cholesterol and other factors to try to determine your overall health.

Some providers will issue life insurance without a medical exam, but you’ll typically pay more for coverage. You may also be limited to less coverage than you’re hoping for, with some insurers maxing out no-exam policies at $50,000.

If you need a small amount of coverage, you might be better off checking to see if your employer offers life insurance as a perk. Employee life insurance can often cover basic end-of-life expenses and may cover some or all of your annual salary. Basic coverage usually doesn’t require an exam and may even be free.

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