When you die, your family won't care what type of life insurance you had, which company you purchased it from, or whether your policy included any special riders or provisions. They'll only want the answer to one simple question: Is there enough?
Unfortunately, the biggest mistake people make when buying life insurance is that they buy less than they need. The average adult American has roughly $170,000 in life insurance coverage, or about four times his or her annual income. Sounds like a lot, but imagine if that money had to pay for a funeral, retire credit card balances and other debts, support your loved ones for many years to come, and help cover college costs. Would it be enough? How would you know?
The nonprofit LIFE Foundation offers a life insurance needs calculator that can provide you with a general sense of how much coverage you need to protect the ones you love. It only takes a minute or two to go through the calculation. And if you find out that you need more coverage than you currently have, take action soon because there are no do-overs with life insurance. You won't get a chance to change your mind when you're gone.
There are many kinds of life insurance, but they generally fall into two categories: term insurance and permanent insurance.
Term insurance, the most affordable type of insurance when initially purchased, is designed to meet temporary needs. It provides protection for a specific period of time (the "term") and generally pays a benefit only if you die during the term. It is often a good choice for people in their family-formation years, especially if they're on a tight budget, because it allows them to buy high levels of coverage when the need for protection is often greatest.
Term insurance is also a good option for covering needs that will disappear in time. For instance, if paying for college is a major financial concern but you're pretty sure that you won't need life insurance coverage after the kids graduate, then it might make sense to buy a term policy that'll get you through the college years. If you buy a term policy only to realize at the end of the term that you still have a need for life insurance, the good news is that many policies will give you the option to renew your policy. The bad news is that you may face higher costs since age is one of key factors used to determine life insurance premiums. If your health has deteriorated significantly, you may find that coverage is no longer affordable. So if you're considering a term policy, make sure you carefully consider how long you'll need the coverage. If you're pretty sure that your needs are temporary, then term insurance is probably the right choice. But if you think there's a possibility that you might need the coverage for a long time, then you might want to include some permanent life insurance in your financial plans.
Permanent insurance provides lifelong protection, and the ability to accumulate cash value on a tax-deferred basis. Unlike term insurance, a permanent insurance policy will remain in force for as long as you continue to pay your premiums. Because these policies are designed and priced for you to keep over a long period of time, this is probably the wrong type of insurance for you if you don't have a long-term need for life insurance coverage.
Why would someone need coverage for an extended period of time? Because contrary to what a lot of people think, the need for life insurance often persists long after the kids have graduated college or the mortgage has been paid off. If you died the day after your youngest child graduated from college, your spouse would still be faced with daily living expenses. And what if your spouse outlives you by 10, 20 or even 30 years, which is certainly possible today. Would your financial plans, without life insurance, enable your spouse to maintain the lifestyle you worked so hard to achieve? Another key characteristic of permanent insurance is that it includes a savings component, often referred to as "cash values." These accumulate on a tax-deferred basis just like assets in most retirement and tuition savings plans, and can be used in the future for any purpose you wish. If you like, you can borrow cash value for a down payment on a home, to help pay for your children's education or to provide income for your retirement. When you borrow money from a permanent insurance policy, you're using the policy's cash value as collateral and the borrowing rates tend to be relatively low. And unlike loans from most financial institutions, the loan is not dependent on credit checks or other restrictions. You ultimately must repay any loan with interest or your beneficiaries will receive a reduced death benefit and cash-surrender value.
It's impossible to say which type of life insurance is better because the kind of coverage that's right for you depends on your unique circumstances and financial goals. Often, a combination of term and permanent insurance is the right solution.