Updated: August 28, 2023
Life insurance is a legal contract between you and your insurer in which your insurer guarantees payment of a death benefit to your beneficiaries when you die. Most people get some form of life insurance. It is especially important if you have dependents — minor children and/or special-needs adult children, co-own property, are a stay-at-home spouse or married pensioner, or have cosigned loans or any other outstanding debts.
These policies exist to prevent financial difficulties for your loved ones after you die that may result from loss of your income, funeral and burial expenses, and unpaid medical or other debt. There is a Life Insurance Glossary that will help you understand some of the jargon.
Life insurance scams and fraud are more common than with other types of insurance and you should be on the lookout for them.
Unlike most types of insurance that you may never use or use multiple times, whole life insurance will always be used and the death benefit will be paid only once. On the other hand, it is not uncommon for people to outlive their term life insurance policy and never use it.
Life insurance policies were initially intended to help pay for funeral and burial expenses after your death, but some whole life and universal life insurance policies have evolved to include an investment component that can provide your family with more significant financial support and may build up a cash value. However, life insurance is far from the best choice for transferring your wealth to beneficiaries tax free unless you’ve maxed out all other investment options.
Most insurance companies will ask health questions before issuing a life insurance policy and some require a medical exam.
Many insurance companies will check your weight, blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol.
Even if medical exams are not required, questions about medical problems, health habits, family history, driving record, current medications, hobbies and activities, etc. will be asked.
The result of this medical assessment is used to put you into risk categories. Sometimes the benefit of a more detailed assessment is that you will be put into a lower risk category and may qualify for higher insurance coverage with lower premiums than you would have if only questions were asked.
These categories determine the cost of insurance, although rarely affect the coverage limit.
While some companies may provide life insurance with no medical screening, the premiums can be very expensive and you may worry if the company is legitimate.
There are disqualifications that can result in your family not receiving any death benefit that you must avoid.
When it comes to death benefits, you can choose a levelized death benefit or an changing death benefit type of policy. Term life insurance is a levelized death benefit type and whole life insurance can be either.
If you have a universal life policy, most insurance companies will let you switch back and forth between the two types of policy as your life circumstances change.
Any cash value remaining in your whole life policy after your death will not automatically be paid out to your beneficiaries unless you include a specific rider or get a specific type of policy.
Life insurance can be customized with riders to include additional benefits or payoffs if specific circumstances happen. For example, a life insurance policy could pay more if you die in an accident, before a certain age, or of a specific condition.
The more the payout and/or number of riders, the higher the premiums.
Life insurance policies can be used while you are alive. Depending on the type of insurance and terms of your policy you will have different options. These options may not be pointed out and you will have to specifically ask about and request them.
If you have a policy that accumulates cash value, you can use it for expenses.
You can obtain money for medical or other costs from any form of life insurance if you have a terminal illness. Options may include: