Term Life Insurance: What It Is and How It Works

Term life insurance is a relatively inexpensive way to provide money for your family if you die.
Ryan Brady
Georgia Rose
By Georgia Rose and  Ryan Brady 
Edited by Katia Iervasi Reviewed by Tony Steuer

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Imagine a world without yourself in it. Would your family need help paying the bills? Term life insurance can help you bridge that gap at a relatively low cost. If you die while the policy is in force, you’ll leave behind a lump sum of cash for whomever you choose.

Because term life insurance doesn’t last forever and has no cash value, it’s typically much cheaper than whole life insurance.


The person(s) or entity a life insurance company pays after an insured person dies.

Cash value

The portion of a permanent life insurance policy that grows over time and can typically be used to withdraw or borrow against. Term life insurance plans do not have a cash value component.

Death benefit

The money a life insurance company pays beneficiaries after an insured person dies.


The cost of your life insurance policy (typically paid monthly, semiannually or yearly).

What is term life insurance?

Term life insurance offers temporary coverage for a specific period of time, such as 10, 20 or 30 years. As long as you keep up with your premium payments, your insurer will pay a sum of money to your life insurance beneficiaries if you die during the term.

Unlike whole life and other types of permanent life insurance that may last your entire life, term life insurance coverage typically expires when the term ends. This means that if you outlive your policy, your beneficiaries won't receive any money. If you still need life insurance, you may be able to renew your policy, convert it to permanent coverage at a higher premium or buy another policy.

Term life doesn’t build cash value that you can borrow against, like permanent life insurance does. This is one reason term life is cheaper than whole life. Term life purely provides insurance, and with whole life, you're paying for longer coverage and the ability to grow the policy's cash value.

Do you need term life insurance?

Term life insurance is sufficient for most people who are in the market for coverage. Consider term life insurance if:

  • People — like a spouse or child — depend on you financially.

  • Your death would be a financial burden to others.

  • You have debt that will be paid off after a number of years, such as a mortgage.

  • You’re a stay-at-home parent and your family would have to pay someone to handle household tasks and other services if you die.

How long does term life insurance last?

Term life insurance policies often last for 10, 20 or 30 years, but some insurers offer policies in one- and five-year increments. If you’re a breadwinner in your family, aim to choose a term length that matches the years your family will rely on your income.

Ideally, by the time your coverage ends, you’ll no longer need life insurance. Your children will be grown, your mortgage will be paid off, and you’ll have enough savings to be financially secure.

🤓Nerdy Tip

If you expect your needs will change over time, you can buy more than one life insurance policy, giving you extra coverage during the stages of life when you need it most. This strategy is known as “laddering,” and it’s useful if you have financial obligations set to end at different times. For example, you could take out a 30-year policy to match your 30-year mortgage and a 20-year policy to cover your children until early adulthood, when they’re likely to start earning their own money.

Deciding between term and permanent life insurance

Find out whether term life insurance is the best fit for you by using our tool below.

Can I switch to permanent life insurance?

Many policies allow you to convert your term life policy to permanent insurance. Your premiums will go up, but you can stay insured without having to prove you’re still in good health. Some policies allow conversion at any time, while others permit it only in the first few years of coverage or before you reach a certain age, like 75.

How much does term life insurance cost?

Term policies are often the most affordable life insurance. The cost of a term life insurance policy depends on several factors, including:

  • Age. Younger people qualify for lower premiums because they are less likely to die in the near term.

  • Health. Many insurers require you to take a life insurance medical exam and answer health questions. Poor health can mean higher premiums.

  • Gender. Men typically die at younger ages than women, so men often pay more for life insurance. Life expectancy in the U.S. is 79.3 years for women and 73.5 years for men, according to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

    Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Mortality in the United States, 2021. Accessed Apr 5, 2024.

With most term life insurance policies, premiums and payouts stay the same throughout the term. In this way, term life is one of the more predictable types of life insurance.

Term life insurance rates for men and women

Here’s a look at how much you might expect to pay for a $500,000, 20-year term life insurance policy as a healthy applicant.

Average annual cost of term life insurance for nonsmokers


Average cost per year for men

Average cost per year for women
















Source: Quotacy. Lowest three rates for each age averaged. Rates reflect premiums paid monthly for one year. Data valid as of March 20, 2024.

Average annual cost of term life insurance for smokers


Average cost per year for men

Average cost per year for women
















Source: Quotacy. Lowest three rates for each age averaged. Rates reflect premiums paid monthly for one year. Data valid as of March 20, 2024.

Term life insurance shopping guide

If you've settled on term life insurance, there are a few decisions you'll need to make to get the policy that best fits your needs.

1. Know the types of term life policies

  • Level-premium term life is a common type of term life insurance and the right choice for many people. In most cases, your premiums stay the same every year, and your beneficiaries receive the death benefit if you die while the level term life policy is active. According to the Insurance Information Institute, 20-year policies are the most popular

    Insurance Information Institute. What are the different types of term life insurance policies?. Accessed Apr 5, 2024.

  • Renewable term life gives you the option to renew your coverage after the term expires, even if your health would otherwise prevent you from buying a new policy. However, your premiums may increase when you renew. Annual renewable term is an example of this type of coverage, and it's suitable for those with a brief life insurance need — like covering a short-term loan. Otherwise, you’ll likely save money by locking in a rate with a longer level-premium policy.

  • Decreasing term life policies have a life insurance death benefit that goes down over time, though premiums usually stay the same. One example is mortgage protection insurance. People may choose this type of policy to cover a specific debt that they plan to pay off during the term.

2. Consider policy riders

Some companies offer extra features called life insurance riders, often for an additional fee. Here are a few common life insurance riders.

With return-of-premium life insurance, if you keep your policy until the end of its term, the insurer will refund the premiums you paid. This option may be appealing if you don’t like the idea of outliving your policy and getting nothing in return for paying years’ worth of premiums.

However, your premiums are likely to be considerably higher if you choose this option.

If you become seriously ill, an accelerated death benefit rider allows you to withdraw part of the money from the death benefit while you’re still alive. This is often referred to as a “living benefit.”

Some insurers only offer living benefits for those with terminal illnesses, while others may let you tap in to your payout early if you have a critical illness. It’s important to read the fine print on your policy or the rider options to make sure you understand the eligibility criteria.

Note that if you use this option, the amount you withdraw will no longer be paid to your family when you’re gone. If you think you might use an accelerated death benefit, make sure to buy enough coverage that your family’s financial needs will still be met when you die.

A waiver of premium rider pauses your premiums if you become unemployed or disabled and can’t work for a specified period of time, typically six months or longer. Your policy remains in force even though you’re no longer required to make premium payments.

This option increases the payout if you die due to an accident. But be aware that "accident" might not mean what you think.

Insurance companies may strictly define what types of accidental deaths qualify for the extra payout. In addition, there may be time limits. For example, if you're injured in an accident and die of your injuries four months later, your beneficiaries won’t get an extra payout if the accidental death benefit rider covers only deaths within three months of an accident.

3. Understand the approval process

Before you buy coverage, insurers typically want to know how healthy you are. You may need to answer some health questions, and it’s important to be truthful. Companies can reject a life insurance claim if the application was inaccurate or incomplete.

The approval process varies based on the type of policy you're applying for:

  • Fully underwritten life insurance typically requires a medical exam. A medical professional may take blood and urine samples and check factors like your weight, height and blood pressure. Even if you have some health issues, you can generally find the lowest price by applying for a fully underwritten life insurance policy.

  • Simplified issue life insurance doesn’t require a medical exam. You’ll still answer health questions, and the insurer may pull data about you from other sources, such as your prescription drug history and driving record.

  • Guaranteed issue life insurance skips both the questionnaire and exam and doesn’t require any information about your health.

For some people, accelerated underwriting is another way to get life insurance without a medical exam. You answer health questions online or by phone, and the insurer uses outside data and sophisticated algorithms to evaluate your application. You might get rapid approval, with rates similar to those you’d get if you’d taken an exam. However, if you’re in less-than-perfect health, some companies that offer instant life insurance may require a medical exam before deciding whether to approve your application.

🤓Nerdy Tip

If you have a hobby or occupation that’s considered dangerous, like scuba diving or aviation, you can expect to pay higher rates. Some insurance companies may also deny you coverage or exclude deaths resulting from a dangerous activity from being covered. Find out whether your hobby is covered and how much it will cost you before you commit to a plan. If the premiums seem unreasonable, keep shopping around.

4. Compare prices

Every insurer has its own criteria for setting rates, so premiums can vary — sometimes significantly. It's worth getting quotes from a handful of insurers to make sure you're locking in the lowest possible rate.

It’s easy to compare life insurance quotes online for term policies. Be sure to choose the same coverage amounts and options for each policy you compare.

More about term life insurance

Learn more about how term life insurance works, and find the right coverage for you.

Frequently asked questions

Whether you’re dealing with a company representative or an independent life insurance agent, consider asking the following questions:

  • What life insurance lengths do you offer?

  • What coverage amounts are available?

  • Are there any hobbies or medical conditions that will exclude me from getting term life insurance or make me pay a higher premium?

  • What options will I have if my term life insurance plan expires?

Term life insurance policies last only for a specified period — often 10, 20 or 30 years. The best term for you will depend on why you need life insurance. If you’re buying it to make sure a short-term debt can be covered, a 10-year policy might be enough. If you want to make sure your spouse can pay off your mortgage and put your children through college without your income, a 30-year policy might be better.

Term life insurance isn’t meant to last forever. But if you find you still need life insurance upon its expiration date, you may be able to renew your policy, convert it to a permanent policy at a higher premium or buy a new policy. It’s best to check with your insurance company or agent before you buy a policy to check what your options are.

Term life insurance lasts for a set number of years, while whole life insurance typically lasts your entire life. Because whole life insurance pays out regardless of when you die and includes a “cash value component” — a reserve attached to your policy that grows over time — it’s more expensive than term life insurance. Read NerdWallet’s term life vs. whole life insurance: differences and how to choose.

Most life insurance companies offer a grace period after a missed bill, usually between 30 and 90 days. During this time, your policy is still active. As long as you pay in full by the end of the grace period, you’ll be fully protected.

What if you still can’t pay? Insurers often allow customers to apply for reinstatement within a certain time period after the policy’s lapse.

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