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Educational Consumer Tips

Life Insurance

Author: Rachel Gelb
Category: Finance

For millions of Americans, life insurance means protection against financial need. Life insurance can provide support for a family in the event of a father's or a mother's death, funds to meet the cost of educating children, and/or added income for retirement years since savings, social security and employment pensions are not sufficient for most people.

Because there are so many kinds of life insurance policies with different protections and benefits, terms and conditions, the subject can seem complicated and confusing to prospective insurance buyers. The purpose of this booklet is to give you, the consumer, a basic understanding of life insurance and to provide guidelines for planning your insurance program. With careful planning and the help of a qualified professional life insurance representative, you can have the insurance you need at a cost you can afford.

What is life insurance?

Life insurance is a legal contract between a buyer and an insurer. Under the terms of the contract, called the "insurance policy," the insurer promises to pay a stated sum of money to the beneficiary (the person named by the buyer) in the event of the buyer's death.

The buyer, in turn, agrees to pay a certain sum of money to the insurer in the form of periodic payments called "premiums" in order to have the protection of the insurance.

How does it work?

A life insurance company receives premium payments from thousands of policyholders. The company uses this money plus income from profit-making investments in stocks, bonds, real estate, business loans, etc., to (1) pay all operating costs each year, (2) meet all claims filed by policyholders, (3) build surplus funds to meet year-to-year emergency, and (4) reinvest.

Certain requirements are established by both state regulation agencies and the insurance industry to protect all parties. For example, premium amounts are based on the age of the insured. Younger buyers pay less for life insurance than older buyers and a physical examination may be required to prove that a buyer is in good health and is, therefore, a fair risk for the company over a long period of time.

All terms and conditions of an insurance policy are set forth in the contract and state exactly how much a buyer must pay and for how long in order to have a stated amount of life insurance protection. Other clauses in a policy state what a policyholder can do in the event a premium payment is late, to avoid having a policy cancelled. Restrictions as to insurance company investments and requirements for policyholder reserves provide a basic protection.

Who should purchase life insurance?

Life insurance can be a wise purchase for just about everyone, whether single or married. Generally, people buy life insurance for one or more of the following reasons:

  • To provide financial security for a spouse and children after death;
  • To provide money for the future education of children; or
  • To provide added income for retirement.

Insurance experts advise prospective buyers to consider their insurance needs in terms of a long-range insurance program that will include all present and future needs and possibilities during their lifetime.

Usually, all current and long range needs can be met by combining two or more types of insurance. Such a policy can cover the years when the buyer is beginning a work career and establishing a home and family. Thereafter, the policy can be adjusted to the years when work earnings are at their highest and when children require financial help for such things as college or career training. Future adjustments in the coverage also can provide for the buyer's retirement years when there are no earned salary wages and retirement income must meet every financial need.

Whether married or single, an individual also can benefit during working and retirement years from an insurance policy that provides a loan value, an income for a dependent parent, or a reserve against disability or loss of wages.

How much insurance do you need?

It is not possible to state an amount that could be right for every individual and family insurance buyer. Circumstances differ widely, such as ages of family members, reasons for obtaining the insurance, and family income and other resources. All families must figure out for themselves what percentage of their incomes they are willing to spend for insurance.

Bear in mind that in the event of the buyer's death, the proceeds from the insurance might well have to assist the family over a long period of time until children are no longer dependent and even into the retirement years of a surviving spouse.

Remember, personal circumstances can and often do change over the years and insurance can be purchased for considerably less money when a wage earner is young and in good health. Regardless of marital status, insurance can be a very sound beginning toward building long-range financial security.

How much insurance can you afford?

For every insurance buyer, income at the time of application for a policy is a major, often deciding, factor in the type and amount of insurance they buy. For this reason, a professional insurance representative can provide valuable help by explaining how an insurance plan can be arranged to provide needed protection at the least cost and adjusted over the years as income increases.

How much insurance do you already have?

Insurance plans are drawn on the basis of the buyer's total amount of insurance. Your insurance representative will need

to know how much insurance the buyer, a husband or wife, already has from such sources as veteran's benefits, employer's insurance plans, unions, service and professional organizations, or other sources. If you have existing insurance coverage, you can save time by knowing the terms and conditions and the amount of each insurance policy before you talk to an insurance professional.

Usually, employer and other group policies are term insurance: they do not have a cash value and their protection stops if you leave the employer or the organization. Many policies do have conversion clauses so that you may "take over" the insurance if you leave by purchasing a new individual policy without health evidence at your attained age. Some organizations do have policies that extend over the years after you retire (rather than resign) from a company or an organization. However, your insurance professional will need to know full details in order to help you build the most effective long-range insurance plan.

Where do you buy life insurance?

As with any investment, large or small, it pays to do business with a reputable firm and to check around. Because there are many life insurance companies that offer proven, long-range service to their policyholders, there is also a good deal of competition. For this reason, and to the buyer's advantage, there are often important differences in policy terms and conditions as well as benefits. It is a good idea to review the policies offered by more than one company, and that means you will want to talk with more than one insurance representative.

Types of life insurance

Professional insurance representatives will counsel prospective buyers in planning an insurance program and in explaining the wide range of policies available to meet different individual requirements. Basically, every insurance program or individual policy is based upon two kinds of insurance: TERM and WHOLE LIFE. All other types of insurance offered are variations of these basic kinds. The following information describes a number of the policies available.

  • TERM

    This type of insurance provides protection over a set number of years -- usually five or ten year periods. At the end of this "term" the protection ends. Usually there is no cash value for the premiums paid over the years. That is, no money is returned to the buyer.

    Premiums for a renewed term are higher than the original payments. However, term insurance usually is the least expensive kind and many term policies can be converted to whole life policies at any time during the term of the insurance.

    Term insurance can be the most economical way for a wage earner with limited income to provide adequate protection for a family, or for a single person to provide for their own death costs and payment of any debts outstanding at the time of death.

    RENEWABLE TERM insurance can be renewed at the end of the term, at the option of the policyholder and without evidence of insurability, for a limited number of successive terms.

    For example, a 30-year-old non-smoker buying $50,000 worth of one-year renewable term insurance may pay a premium of $145 the first year, if a man, and $138, if a woman. Women pay less for life insurance because on average they live several years longer than men. Here is how the premium in a typical policy would increase:

    AGE 40 $190 $178
    AGE 50 $405 $328
    AGE 60 $925 $715

    CONVERTIBLE TERM insurance can be exchanged, at the option of the policyholder and without evidence of insurability, for another plan of insurance.


    Whole life (often referred to as straight life, permanent life or ordinary life) insurance provides protection for the lifetime of the buyer and at the buyer's death the amount of the policy will be paid to a beneficiary (the person named by the policy buyer).

    Whole life policies usually offer other options which allow the buyer to cancel the policy, receive either a cash payment or an income for life or for a stated, limited time, or convert to reduced paid-up or extended term insurance. The flexibility and the fact that premium costs are the lowest for whole life policies make these policies among the most popular.

    Payment of the premiums can be set up in a variety of ways:

    • Annual premiums for as long as the buyer lives;
    • Annual premiums for a set number of years or to a certain age; or
    • One single payment for the full cost of the policy at the time of purchase.

    The payments remain fixed and cannot be raised. In addition, these policies build a cash value after a certain number of years which the buyer may use for different purposes during the years of the premium payments.


    "CASH VALUE," an important feature of whole life insurance, is a sum that increases over the years on a tax deferred basis. For example, suppose a 30-year-old non-smoker wants to buy $50,000 worth of coverage. The annual premium for a man might be $765 for a whole life policy with no dividends, while a woman might pay a $735 premium. This is how the cash value typically would grow for both men and women:

    AGE 35 $1,700
    AGE 40 $5,050
    AGE 45 $8,850
    AGE 50 $13,100

    There are several uses for cash value:

    • Using your policy as collateral, you can borrow from the company up to the amount of the current cash value. However, if the policy holder dies and the loan has not been repaid, the amount owed plus interest will be deducted from the death proceeds paid to the beneficiary.
    • With your consent, the insurance company can draw from the cash value to keep the policy in force in the event that you miss paying a premium.
    • If you no longer wish to pay premiums, the accrued cash value can be used to fund a paid-up policy that can be continued as term insurance for a specific period of time.
    • The cash value can be used to purchase an annuity that provides a guaranteed monthly income for life.
    • You can terminate the policy and the insurance company will pay you the cash value in a lump sum.

    Whole life insurance may be purchased in a variety of ways, as reported below.

    MODIFIED LIFE -- Provides protection for individuals who want whole life insurance but wish to pay lower premiums in their younger years. The premium is relatively low in the first several years but increases in the later years.

    LIMITED-PAYMENT WHOLE LIFE -- Provides protection for the life of the insured, but premiums are payable over a shorter time period. Consequently, premium rates are higher than for traditional whole life insurance.

    SINGLE-PREMIUM WHOLE LIFE -- Provides for the duration of the insured's life, in exchange for the payment of the total premium in one lump sum at the time the policy is issued.

      COMBINATION PLANS -- Combine term and whole life insurance in one contract. Frequently, premiums for combination plans do not increase as the insured grows older.


      A relatively new form of insurance providing permanent protection, universal life allows policyholders more flexibility than whole life insurance. You can pay premiums at any time and in any amount after the initial payment, provided enough cash value has accumulated. Also, you can reduce or increase the amount of death protection in the same policy without buying a new one.

      With a universal life insurance policy, the amount of the cash value reflects the interest earned at prevailing interest rates. Thus, the amount you accumulate varies according to the general financing climate. Usually, rates are guaranteed for one year. After that, a new rate is determined. The rates used can be no lower than a guaranteed rate specified in the policy - typically four or four-and-one-half percent.


      A variation of universal life, this form of insurance has fixed premiums and fixed death benefits. As in other universal life policies, its cash value growth depends on market conditions. If market conditions are favorable and if the premiums paid in the first several years that the policy is in force are large enough, premiums for one or more years may be reduced or discontinued.


      With this type of permanent protection insurance, you can invest your premium in a separate fund which can be either an equity, money market or long-term bond fund. The cash value and death benefit vary in relation to the performance of your investment fund. However, the death benefit cannot fall below the amount of insurance originally purchased.

      There are two types of variable life policies -- SCHEDULED PREMIUM VARIABLE LIFE insurance and FLEXIBLE PREMIUM VARIABLE LIFE insurance. Under a scheduled premium policy, payments are fixed as to the timing and amount. Policyholders who own a flexible premium policy, on the other hand, may change the timing or amount, or both, of their premium payments.

      Life insurance agents who sell variable life must be registered representatives of a broker-dealer licensed by the National Association of Securities Dealers and registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission. If you are interested in this type of policy, be sure your representatives give you a prospectus outlining and explaining all disclosures about the variable life policy.


      Another form of permanent protection, adjustable life lets the policyholder raise or lower the face amount of the policy, increase or decrease the premium, and lengthen or shorten the protection period.

      Special purpose insurance

      You may consider special purpose insurance, such as home mortgage and/or credit life insurance. For example, a head of a family may purchase an additional amount of term life insurance to pay off a mortgage balance in the event of death. For the same reason, credit life insurance can provide separate insurance funds to pay off a loan balance on an automobile, a mobile home, a boat or other expensive property. These term policies serve to protect the long range insurance program that will be used throughout the buyer's lifetime or that of his/her beneficiaries. However, remember that such insurance may be costly, and unnecessary, if you already have sufficient whole life or term coverage.

      Mail order life insurance

      From time to time you may encounter an offer to buy life insurance through the mail at an attractively low price and, often, without a physical examination and regardless of age. But be careful! Never purchase such a policy until you have read and understood every word of the policy, not just the advertising. Check with state insurance regulatory authorities to find out if the company is licensed to sell insurance in your state. If an unlicensed company should refuse to pay a claim on your policy to which you feel you are entitled, you may have no recourse to the insurance department of your state if it does not have supervision over that company.

      Life insurance, savings, and investments

      The best way to spend your money depends on what your needs are and the extent of your resources. Every family should set funds aside for all three -- insurance, savings, and investments.

      In considering life insurance, some people may argue that it is better to buy the least amount necessary to protect dependents and to put one's money over the years in such things as stocks and other investments. The usual reason given for this is that the cash value of life insurance does not automatically rise to keep pace with inflation, and for a buyer to increase insurance protection at a later date means higher premiums.

      On the other hand, the risks involved due to market fluctuations, when investing in stocks, must also be considered.

      Be sure to consider how much you want to put into insurance and how much you want to put in other areas of investment, such as stocks, mutual funds or real estate, that might hedge against inflation.

      A low-cost term insurance policy may be the best bet for some; it has no cash value build-up, but offers protection for your family in case of death. Because term insurance costs are much less than whole life, you will have more money on hand, money which can be invested in more extensive term coverage or in apparently safe and sure assets which will appreciate over the next 20 or 30 years.

      Keep in mind, however, that if you follow this "buy term and invest (or save) the difference" path, you must exercise a degree of self-discipline and acquire the expertise to systematically and prudently invest or save. Otherwise, your protection/savings program might not produce the results you have anticipated.

      Comparing insurance costs

      Just as important as figuring out how much you can afford to pay in premiums for life insurance is determining the cost of the policy. That is, how much insurance are you getting for your premium dollar? The cost of life insurance can vary greatly among companies, depending on the type of insurance you buy.

      Many states require cost disclosures statements and most companies provide them even if the state does not require them. Clearly, comparison shopping for the best value, that is, the most insurance coverage for your premium dollar, is a wise course to follow.

      When comparing the cost of life insurance, you may want to use a special cost index developed to aid in shopping for life insurance. The cost index provides you with a number that reflects the price of the policy. A policy with a smaller index number is generally a better buy than a comparable policy with a higher index number.

      The following rules are important to remember when comparing costs:

      • Cost comparisons can only be made between similar life insurance plans.
      • Index number comparisons should only be made for your age, the type of policy you intend to buy and the amount of insurance you plan to purchase.
      • Small variations in index numbers might be offset by other policy features or differences in the quality of service you get from an insurance company. Your life insurance company or representative can give you additional information about using a cost index to compare costs.

        Insurance companies

      Basically, there are two types of insurance companies: the Stock Company and the Mutual Company. The Stock Company is owned by stockholders who elect a board to direct the company's management. A Mutual Company has no stockholders and is directed by a board elected by the policyholders.

      While both the Stock Company and a Mutual Company may issue Participating and Nonparticipating policies, the general practice is that the privately owned Stock Company issues Nonparticipating policies (no dividend), while the Mutual Company issues Participating policies (dividend-paying).

      Choosing an insurance representative

      In all states, life insurance representatives must be licensed to sell policies to consumers. Qualification is based upon a written examination, and often representatives will have had further training in various insurance areas such as financial planning.

      An insurance representative may receive extensive training through the company he or she represents or The National Association of Life Underwriters. Additionally, the agent may have received a certificate as a Chartered Life Underwriter (CLU) from the American College of Life Underwriters after completing a college level course of study.

      You, as the policy buyer, must be assured that the agent you select has the knowledge and experience to advise you. Equally important, you must be assured that the agent will provide the time and service to advise and assist you in the future.

      Qualified, reputable insurance representatives are professionals in their field. You should choose one as you would a doctor or lawyer. Talk with more than one representative and be sure you have confidence in the person you eventually select. Planning and adjusting an insurance program in later years requires guidance by a competent insurance representative.

      Replacing or trading properties

      Attractive offers may come your way that offer to replace your existing life insurance policy with one from another company. Often, if you have a whole life policy, its cash value may cover more than the initial premium for the replacement policy. The new policy may have some advantages over your existing one; it may replace your whole life policy with a term policy having a greater death benefit coupled with an income producing policy. Whether or not it is advisable to replace or turn in your existing policy depends on a number of factors that you must determine yourself, according to your own situation.

      Whatever you do, do not be rushed into signing up with the new company before you thoroughly compare the advantages and disadvantages of changing policies. Check with your present insurer and even other companies to compare costs and benefits that you might obtain or already have. Among things to consider when thinking of replacing your insurance are: the cash value of your present policy, premium size, loan value, insurance cost and limits on denial of coverage. Never cancel a policy until there is a new one in force.

      Tips to remember

      • Always read your insurance contract carefully and, if necessary, ask your agent for a point-by-point explanation of the language.
      • Remember that your insurance contract is a legal document. Therefore, you should familiarize yourself with the promises bound by that contract.
      • You can contact your state insurance commissioner's office if you have questions about an insurance company or its policies.
      • After purchasing new life insurance, you have a 10-day "free look" which entitles you to change your mind. If you do so, the company will return your premium without a penalty.
      • It is wise to give photocopies of your policy to your beneficiaries and your lawyer.
      • Keep your policy, the name of the company and policy number in a secure place, such as a safety deposit box.

        For further information, contact:

      American Council of Life Insurance
      1001 Pennsylvania Avenue., N.W.,
      Washington, D.C. 20004-2599
      Phone: 202-624-2000

      National Association of Life Underwriters
      1922 F Street, N.W.
      Washington, D.C. 20006
      Phone: 202-331-6000

      Consumer Federation of America’s Insurance Group
      414 A Street, S.E.
      Washington, D.C. 20003
      Phone: 202-547-6426

      National Insurance Consumer Help Line
      Phone: 800-942-4242

      Your state insurance department.

    • About the Author: Rachel Gelb is Communications and Marketing Manager for BBB serving Eastern Massachusetts, Maine, Rhode Island and Vermont. Find Rachel on Google +.

      Questions and Comments

      Question Submitted 2/4/2013

      How long does an insurance company have to pay a death benefit on a term life policy? The policy was 3 1/2 years old, no missed premium payments and my husband died due to complications from an illness he contracted 2 1/2 years after the policy went into effect. The company keeps telling me it is under review. It has been under review for 6 weeks.

      BBB's Answer:

      This depends on the policy, the coverage and the terms. It also depends on the documentation required by the insurance company and your submission of such documents. Your best bet is to contact them and get the exact reasons why it has not been paid yet and what exactly they are waiting for or are reviewing for. 

      Question Submitted 3/2/2013

      I am a 50 year old single mother of two with an income of $55,000 year. What would your advice be for life insurance to protect my children in case I would be unable to work or dead? Thank you.

      BBB's Answer:

      For every insurance buyer, income at the time of application for a policy is a major, often deciding, factor in the type and amount of insurance they buy. For this reason, a professional insurance representative can provide valuable help by explaining how an insurance plan can be arranged to provide needed protection at the least cost and adjusted over the years as income increases.

      You can look for BBB ACcredited Businesses who provide life insurance at to start your search for a business or you can explore a bit online. 

      Question Submitted 5/17/2013

      My husband passed away of a stroke. For a few months prior to the stroke that killed him he was not feeling well, and for the first time in 18 years missed the payment for his life insurance policy. He died 3 days after the grace period for late payments ended. I believe he did not make the final payment due to illness. The insurance company denied my claim. Are there any regulations to protect policy holders for non-payment due to illness?

      BBB's Answer:

      I would contact the MA Division of Insurance or the MA Attorney General and ask for assistance there. I would also make a case with the insurance company and escalate that as far as you can take it. 

      Comment Submitted 1/2/2014

      My father passed away of a heart attack but had an accidental policy. They obviously won't pay out but are also refusing to pay back any premiums that were paid in all the years he had the policy. Is that normal policy for life insurance companies? If not, how can I obtain these funds?

      Comment Submitted 3/12/2014

      I was late on a couple of life insurance payments (2)due to emergency medical expenses doing the first of the year but paid the premiums in March to catch up. However, my insurance company cancelled my policy for late payments. Can I apply for life insurance with another company without being penalized for being late with my former insurance carrier?

      Comment Submitted 4/7/2014

      When I was 24 years old my husband died. He was working for a company called ******** ****** *** *******. After he passed away the company did not pay out his Life Insurance Policy that I was to receive. They did not like me and my lifestyle. I was wondering after 30 years if there can be anything done? I had tried to contact them a long time ago but they refused to talk to me.

      Question Submitted 4/16/2014

      My father passed away March 30 2014 we found a envelope that has Peoples Life insurance company on it. Inside has medical documination from the doctors my dad saw. My mom said my dad purched it when he was about 22 yrs old. An agent came around door to door and collected payments. Come to find out the agent was pocketing money not paying the clients policy payment. My mom said my dad had paid his premium in full. From what i understand the insurance company was being suied. How do i find out a out policy wwFromwhat i can find the company was bought out by Monumental ot TransAmerican.

      BBB's Answer:

      You will need to do some research. Start with the business(s) who bought People's Life Insurance and contact the new insurance company to see if they have your fathers information. Once you start that process you will be able to take next steps. 

      Comment Submitted 5/18/2014

      My husband recently retired, and was offered the option of keeping his life insurance that he had thru his company at the current rate he was paying. This offer was made by the insurance company. Is this customary? Thank you.

      Question Submitted 8/15/2014

      My husband, still employed when died, had group life insurance plus paid to additional life insurance to increase face amount through his job's plan. When he died the job Plans Administrator called and told me what my son & I % amounted to. She read & stated emphatically to me, this ONE & ONLY FACT from the policy contract about my son's %->80k, "the policy terms states if the death benefit/money left to my son stays with the insurance company in in the account of their bank & the principal will earn 3.60% GUARANTEED RATE of interest compounded every quarter of each year until the minor reaches age of majority, and I do not & cannot make any withdrawals. Also, the account is fully FDIC insured." WELL to leave out details the account & funds were transferred w/o ANY DISCLOSURE to beneficiary to an unaffiliated, non-FDIC annuity/financial svcs compy who (after NEVER being taxed on the life insurance proceeds per IRS guidelines-no withdrawals/no taxation!) taxed the money for ONLY 4/5yrs on Form 1099, reduced interest rate & enriched themselves by keeping over 30k & said I had to get a computer b'cus they stopped ALL paper acct statements!?, kept redirecting my phone calls 'til the lady they FORCED to take MY calls became so irate at HERSELF, then w/o disclosure the acct/money were PAPER-transferred again b'cus 5 digits were added to acct# and b4 stmts stopped, the stmt date stayed the same--stmts looked photocopied--I been suffering w/extreme depression--then & now. IRS told me to contact this annuity compy to correct 1099s-I did-they ignored; I dont know WHAT lawyer to contact-insurer & banks are out-of-state so who has non-probate jurisdiction? Do you think I have a breach of duty,fraud by omission, etc. Lawsuit? Where do I obtain a copy of the original policy which was NEVER sent to me? How long are they suppose to keep records of these accts? Should I write original trustee/insurance compy? Annuity compy wrote this yr & said they DONT KNOW WHERE acct came from!? Really?!? I do! Would his Employer still have group policy from '98?

      BBB's Answer:

      I would contact the Division of Insurance in your state and ask them for some assistance or at least for some guidelines on who to contact and how to get this straightened out. 

      Question Submitted 10/7/2014

      I have been paying into my current Whole Life insurance policy for approximately 30 yrs. I am vigilant about paying it each month. I just received a phone call posing as my health insurance company wanting to send someone to do a health check on me. When I received the confirmation email shortly after, it was obvious it was concerning life insurance. I am pretty sure my life insurance with **** ****** is behind it. Is this legal? Also, the policy is one that encourages you to pay extra and build up an annuity but I choose to only pay for the actual insurance costs. I feel like they are looking for a way to cancel or raise my rates now that I am nearing 60 yrs of age. Can you advise me?

      BBB's Answer:

      I would contact the Division of Insurance in NC - they can be contacted at
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      Views expressed on this page are those of the individual author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Better Business Bureau.

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