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A life insurance policy can present your family with the financial support necessary to settle your debts, pay for funeral arrangements or care, and even set up a future inheritance. That way, your loved ones can more easily focus on healing and celebrating your life.
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Life insurance is a financial safety-net for your loved ones in the event of your passing. Think of life insurance as a contract between you and your insurance company. You pay a premium to maintain your coverage and when you die, your insurer pays out your policy to your beneficiaries. This payment is known as a death benefit.
Beneficiary. The person, organization or entity you nominate to receive the proceeds of your life insurance policy when you die.
Cash value. The cash that accumulates over time in permanent life insurance policies, like whole life.
Claim. After a policyholder dies, it’s the beneficiary’s responsibility to let the insurer know that the payout is due. This is the process of “filing a claim.”
Coverage amount. Also known as “face value,” this is how much your policy is worth — such as $250,000, $500,000 or $1 million. In most cases, your beneficiaries will receive a death benefit equal to the coverage amount when you pass away.
Death benefit. The amount of money that is paid out to your beneficiary or beneficiaries when you die.
Quote. The estimated amount of money you’ll pay for coverage, as calculated by an insurance company.
Rating class. The risk category you qualify for according to your insurer’s underwriting standards. Common rating classes are Preferred Plus, Preferred and Standard.
Rider. An optional add-on that can bridge any gaps in your coverage. The options vary between insurers, but you’ll typically pay a fee to add riders to your policy.
Policyholder. The person who owns the policy.
Premium. The fee you pay to keep your policy in force.
Term. The length of time your term life policy is in force — for example, 10, 15 or 20 years.
Underwriting. The process by which an insurer determines how risky you are to insure. Underwriters assess your age, gender, job and lifestyle, as well as your health history and medical exam. They then use this data to assign you a rating class and set your premium.
How to get a life insurance policy
1. Compare policies
Get quotes from a range of insurers to find a policy that suits your budget and needs. Once you’ve settled on a policy, choose your coverage amount and select riders.
The process of purchasing life insurance is pretty straightforward, but if you’d like to learn more please consider reading our guide to buying life insurance.
How much does life insurance cost?
It depends on a range of factors, like your age, gender, health, occupation, lifestyle and whether you’re a smoker. The coverage amount, term length, and type of policy you’re applying for comes into play, too. Insurers weigh up these factors differently, which is why it’s important to compare quotes from more than one company.
While rates can vary wildly, we can give you an idea of how much you might pay. A 20-year term life insurance policy – worth $500,000 – for someone between the ages of 25 and 40, and in good health, would average around $28 a month.
Life insurance types
When deciding how to narrow down your life insurance needs, start by choosing from its two main types: term life and whole life. Term life covers you for a specified period of five to 30 years or more, depending on the provider. After your coverage expires, you can typically renew or convert your policy to another term. Whole life insurance is a type of permanent policy, providing lifelong coverage and often a cash value component and dividends supported by an investment account.
Term life insurance
Easily the most practical and affordable life insurance option, term life insurance offers coverage for a predetermined period of time.
The death benefit is paid out when you die. Most life insurance providers pay out claims within 60 days, with most states allowing your insurer up to 30 days to investigate your claim, if necessary. It’s typically paid out in a lump sum — but you can instruct your insurer to pay the death benefit in installments or annuities.
Your beneficiaries can then use the money however they wish. These are some of the most common ways people spend the cash:
Living expenses — like utility bills, groceries, rent, health and car insurance
Cosigned debts — such as student loans or credit cards
End-of-life expenses — including funeral costs and unpaid medical bills
Long-term care — like a nursing home or medical expenses for ailing parents College tuition
Can I access the money before I die?
Maybe. There are two ways you can tap into your policy while you’re still alive:
1. Living benefits riders.
Some insurers offer living benefits riders, which pay out your policy early in certain circumstances. These include:
Accelerated death benefit rider. If you’re diagnosed with a terminal illness, this rider pays out a portion of the death benefit.
Critical illness rider. If you’re diagnosed with a critical — but not terminal — illness, this rider kicks in to pay a lump sum. Heart disease, cancer, stroke and kidney failure are some of the most common covered illnesses.
Disability income rider. If you become totally disabled and can no longer work, this rider will pay a monthly cash benefit for a specific period of time.
2. Cash value in permanent policies.
More on this in a minute, but these policies accumulate cash value over time. Once you’ve built up enough cash value, you can begin to borrow against your policy.
How to compare life insurance policies
To find a comprehensive life insurance policy at the best rates, look into how coverage amounts affect your premiums, the flexibility of your policy options and additional riders or features specific to the providers you’re interested in.
To simplify the process of comparing different policies, ask yourself:
Learn the limits of the provider’s insurance policies and what your loved ones will receive in the event of a claim. Some insurers allow you to buy life insurance at any amount, while others cap coverage for specific occupations and age groups.
Research whether age affects your ability to apply for a specific policy, and learn about any ages at which your policy stops covering you. Seniors looking for life insurance, for example, may find limited options among insurers.
Some insurers offer no medical exam insurance, which allows you to purchase coverage without a lot of medical underwriting. Many online insurers allow a short questionnaire to stand in for a medical exam, though this option often comes with higher rates.
Look at the range of features automatically included in your policy. If your policy isn’t as flexible as you’d like, ask about riders that can help you customize your policy to fit your life’s circumstances.
It’s often cheaper to buy insurance through one provider instead of buying policies from different companies. Depending on the insurer, you might be able to combine standalone disability income insurance and critical illness insurance policies with your overall policy.
If you work in high-risk industries or situations, make sure you’re not excluded from the provider’s coverage. Conditions on coverage can vary among insurers based on your occupation or lifestyle. You might even find a provider that specializes in your field, potentially offering more affordable rates.
How much coverage should I get?
Given the general unpredictability of life, there’s no one universal answer for how much coverage you should buy. Experts will tell you to start with a multiple of your annual income — up to 10 times your salary. Generally, you want to determine an amount that will cover immediate and ongoing costs after you die, so that your family and other dependents can support their current way of life.
4 ways to work out how much coverage you need
When determining how much coverage is enough to protect your family, consider your debts, living expenses and lifestyle. Also plan for how your loved ones will pay for your funeral, burial and related expenses.
1. What types of debt will you leave behind?
Think about how much of your salary goes to pay down debt and how much you pay monthly or annually toward:
Outstanding mortgage payments.
Personal debt like personal loans, car loans or credit card balances.
2. How much do you already have for your family to fall back on?
Think about the number of years you might need to cover your family’s living expenses and whether savings or assets can offset those costs after your death, including:
Assets that your family can sell.
Investments like property or stock.
Employer-sponsored retirement plans or a 401(k).
3. What are your family’s ongoing living expenses?
Factor into your life insurance coverage everyday and even irregular expenses, like:
Transportation costs, including car maintenance and gas.
Property and income taxes.
Food, clothing and utilities.
Future education and childcare costs.
Car, health and homeowners insurance.
Entertainment and vacations.
4. How long will your family need coverage?
At some point, your family will be able to rely on Social Security benefits and other investments. But until then, think about:
The ages of your partner and children.
The earning capacity of your partner today and in the future.
Anticipated funeral expenses.
What affects my life insurance premiums?
To calculate your policy’s premiums, life insurance providers engage a complicated review of your age, health and lifestyle called underwriting. They often run these details through proprietary algorithms and analytical tools to determine the level of risk in taking you on as a policyholder. How a life insurance provider rates you within each category varies, but most consider:
Your age. Age is the No. 1 factor that determines your premiums. Generally, the younger you are, the less of a risk you present to the insurer — and the lower premiums you’ll pay.
Your gender. Women generally live longer than men. Because this means a policy will likely be longer, they tend to have lower premiums than men.
Your health history. If you have a history of medical conditions, an insurer might consider you a risk for future, more serious issues, bumping up your premium accordingly. If you can prove to the insurer that you’re managing any existing condition, it might help you lock in a lower rate.
Your occupation and lifestyle. If you work in a dangerous field or embrace life like a daredevil, potential insurers may consider you a person with high potential for death. Because most insurers will assume an inevitable policy payout, your premium will undoubtedly be high.
Your relationship with alcohol and nicotine. Drinking and smoking are risks to your health, and you could end up paying double the life insurance premium for those with less risky habits.
Your family’s medical history. If you come from a line of relatives with serous health issues, especially hereditary conditions, insurers might conclude that you will too, resulting in higher premiums.
Your driving record. Today, many insurers consider your actions behind the wheel when determining costs. If you’ve racked up driving violations or serious convictions, you might pay higher rates.
Buying through a broker or agent?
You have options when shopping for a life insurance policy. Today, you’ll find brokers that work with a range of companies to help you find the best prices in their network on the coverage you need, but they may not offer the personalized service you’ll find with a direct agent.
Both broker and agents work on behalf of providers to sell you a life insurance policy. It all comes down weighing each against what you’re looking for.
Not limited to one provider, offering access to a wide range of products for potentially greater choice.
Can flex their knowledge of the market to help you find coverage to suit your circumstances.
Can help you assess your situation to determine the type and amount of coverage you need.
Can offer overall advice regarding life insurance and annuities.
Depending on their expertise, may offer higher coverage levels and stronger features outside of your typical policy.
If you’ve smoked tobacco in the last 12 months, most insurers will classify you as a smoker. Some insurers are more lenient, and will allow a celebratory cigar once a month without assigning you a smoking status.
Your insurer is legally required to give you a grace period to make up the payment. It typically lasts 28 to 31 days, and your policy stays in force. If you fail to make a payment during the grace period, your insurer will cancel your coverage.
Agents are typically tied to one or more life insurance companies. They have expert knowledge of those insurers’ products, and can help you to complete your application. On the other hand, a broker works for you. They assess your situation and find the best possible policy for your needs.
While group life insurance is a solid employee benefit, it’s often capped at small amounts, like $100,000 — and this may leave you underinsured. Group policies aren’t portable either, which means you’ll lose your coverage if you change jobs.
As a stay-at-home parent, you probably do a lot of unpaid labor, like cooking, cleaning and chauffeuring the kids around. If you die, a life insurance policy can help your family to hire someone else to take over those tasks.
It depends. If you have student loans, a mortgage or other debts, a life insurance policy can pay those outstanding balances. That way, your loved ones won’t be saddled with your debt if you die prematurely. It’s also a good idea to buy a policy if you want to cover the costs of your own funeral.
When the policyholder dies, it’s up to you to file a claim. You’ll need to fill out a claim form and submit a certified copy of the death certificate and any other supporting information to the insurance company. The insurer will then review the claim and pay out the policy once it’s approved.
Katia Iervasi is a writer from Sydney, Australia. Her writing — and curiosity — has taken her around the world, and she now calls New York home. With a journalistic eye for detail, she navigates insurance and finance for Finder, so you can splash your cash smartly (and be a pro when the subject pops up at dinner parties).
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