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Nothing can fully protect your family and loved ones from the unexpected. But life insurance is among the best ways to help the people you love get back on their feet more quickly when you’re no longer able to provide for them. A life insurance policy can present your family with the financial support necessary to settle your debts, pay for funeral arrangements or care, execute any requests and even set up a future inheritance. Optional riders can provide additional peace of mind, allowing you to enhance your policy to cover specific anticipated needs. That way, your loved ones can more easily focus on healing and life without you.
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Get the coverage amount and term that's right for you.
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.
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. In most cases, your insurer pays your life insurance policy in a lump sum to your beneficiaries after you die.
A beneficiary or representative of your estate starts the claims process with your insurer after your death, submitting required forms along with a copy of the death certificate. Insurers may delay payouts if the policyholder’s death is ruled a homicide or suicide. Also, deaths that happen in the first two years after signing up for life insurance coverage typically are subject to something called the two-year contestability clause. This clause allows your insurer the right to more thoroughly investigate your claim to confirm you didn’t provide false or fraudulent information to get a life insurance policy.
Can I receive my life insurance payout before I die?
You might be able to, but it depends on whether you customized your policy at signup with an accelerated benefit rider. These riders allow you to receive a percentage of your policy’s payout if you unexpectedly fall ill or suffer a disability. Depending on your policy’s terms, you can receive your accelerated benefit in periodic installments or as a lump sum to cover the costs of a critical or chronic illness, including long-term care.
What can a life insurance payout be used for?
Everyday living expenses
Other outstanding debts
What to look for in a life insurance policy
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.
Find out how easy it is for you to elements of your policy. Ask whether you can update who’s covered on your policy and remove features after signing up for your policy. If flexible premiums or death benefits are important to you, look into adjustable or variable life insurance policies.
An insurance agent can help you find a policy that meets your needs well into the future. It’s nice to be able to call or speak with an agent by phone or online. But depending on what life throws your way, you might appreciate the opportunity for more personalized service of a dedicated agent or office.
Life insurance policy options
While term and permanent life insurance are the basics, you’ll find variations that allow for flexibility in how much you pay in premiums, how you can accumulate cash value, whether you can borrow against your policy and more. Knowing what these common variations provide can help you customize a policy that meets you and your family’s anticipated needs.
Variable universal life
Length of term
1 to 30 years
Cost of premium
Premiums can vary at the policyholder’s discretion, subject to federal tax laws
Premiums can vary at the policyholder’s discretion, subject to federal tax laws
Guaranteed death benefit
Guaranteed cash value
May be exhausted to pay premiums, safeguarded from risk
How your money appreciates or depreciates
Set rate of interest
Variable rate of interest
Pooled accounts managed by investors
Pooled accounts managed by investors
What you should know
You can’t lose coverage, and you receive no premium refund at the end of the term
Not as flexible as other life insurance options
Flexible policy options and premiums
High-priced policy with no or minimal cash appreciation
High-priced policy with no or minimal cash appreciation
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.
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.
Should I buy insurance through a broker or directly from an insurer?
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.
Buying life insurance from a broker
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.
Buying direct from an insurance provider
Limited to one provider’s products, though with expertise to talk about them in detail.
May allow you to fully sign up online or by phone, with immediate conditional approval.
Online providers may offer faster underwriting and turnaround.
Direct products are beginning more — with some offering coverage amounts of up to $15 million.
I’ve already got life insurance in my retirement plan. Is it enough?
Many retirement plans provide members with a default level of coverage that you can increase, decrease or cancel altogether. If your employer matches contributions through a 401(k), your plan most likely includes default coverage.
To know whether your 401(k)’s coverage is sufficient for your situation, consider the benefits and drawbacks of investing through your retirement plan.
Benefits of investing through your retirement plan
Generally more affordable, because coverage is purchased in bulk.
Premium payments may be tax-deductible if paid with pretax dollars.
Self-employed workers under the age of 75 may be eligible to claim a tax deduction for personal contributions.
In some cases, employees can arrange for an employer to make contributions directly to their 401(k) for an amount that includes life or disability premiums.
Payments are automatically withdrawn from your 401(k), and not your after-tax income.
May not require lengthy medical or health exams.
Drawbacks of investing through your retirement plan
The types of coverage available to you may be limited.
Nondependents may pay taxes on benefits.
Benefits payments can be complicated and take more time, because the benefit is paid to a trustee, who then distributes funds.
Coverage may not be as comprehensive or flexible as a policy.
Coverage expires around age 70, whereas most policies outside of a retirement plan can provide coverage until age 90 or 100.
I am a non-US resident? Yes. A number of insurers are willing to provide life insurance to nonresidents, especially if you’re in the US for work or family. You must apply for the policy in the US and be willing to take a medical exam.
I have a pre-existing condition? It depends on the nature of your condition and any treatment you’re receiving to maintain it. Insurers either exclude the condition from coverage, request more details about your condition or automatically accept it. Eligibility and requirements differ among providers, so you might want to speak directly with an agent about products that meet your needs.
I work in a high-risk job? Yes. But it’s likely you’ll pay a higher premium for coverage than an office worker will. If you’re in a high-risk industry, talk with an insurance expert about your chances of finding an insurer willing to offer competitive coverage for your occupation.
How to get quality protection that won’t break the bank
When it comes to life insurance, you don’t want to overpay. But you also want a policy that leaves your family underinsured when they need it most. Here’s how to make sure you’re getting adequate coverage within your budget.
Buy young to lock in a competitive rate. The best time for an affordable policy is nearly always when you’re young and in good health. Otherwise, a more complicated medical history and older age can spell high rates.
Calculate how much coverage you actually need. Take the time to assess what you’d need to cover in the event of death or serious injury, and think about how that figure could change as you and your family grow older.
Learn what coverage you already have. You may already have some life insurance as part of an employer-sponsored retirement plan or 401(k). Find out what you stand to receive in a claim and whether extra coverage is necessary.
Take the time to shop around. Compare quotes from a range of insurers for a better chance a finding something tailored to your needs and budget.
Keep an eye out for special offers. With so much competition among insurers, you might be able to take advantage of special offers to save on your coverage. Discounts could include free coverage for the first year, access to health rewards programs and lower premiums.
Can life insurance fit into my budget?
You may find it surprising how little a life insurance policy can cost monthly when compared with other expenses. Budgeting for life insurance is often easier than some of the other expenses you might be shelling out monthly such as a cellphone bill or car insurance.
How do annuities work?
An annuity is long-term investment tool designed to pay out your death benefit as regular income to you or your beneficiary, rather than as a lump sum. Life insurance annuities earn interest at either fixed or variable with either immediate or deferred disbursal.
Fixed annuities earn interest a rate that’s fixed at the time you purchase your policy. While a variable annuity earns interest at a rate that depends on the market, which makes it more like an investment that increases or decreases over time. Your money is distributed into a subaccount that’s managed by a pool of investors, and what you’re paid depends on how well your investment does.
When it comes to how quickly you’ll get paid, you can either set up an immediate annuity that pays right away or a deferred annuity that disperses cash at a later date that you agree on.
Keep in mind that your annuity is valid only as long as your insurer is in business. When you’re looking for a policy, shop with highly rated companies.
Still need help? Get answers to common questions
Do I even need life insurance?
It’s true that not everybody needs life insurance coverage. But if you carry personal debt — like student loans or a car payment — that payment doesn’t disappear when you die. Debt, mortgages and funeral costs will likely fall on the shoulders of your parents, partner or extended family. There’s no better time to lock in affordable rates than when you’re young and healthy, and you can also fold in disability and other protection to provide income if you find yourself temporarily unable to work.
It depends. Most people aren’t fortunate enough to invest in a high-interest account that’s adequate enough to cover outstanding debts while also providing support after you’re gone. Depending on your age and health, you might find a policy that helps you leverage $50 a month for a potential payout of $500,000 or more.
Not exactly. Health insurance covers medical expenses associated with sickness and injury. But it doesn’t often provide support for bills, debts or loss of income if you can’t work for an extended time — or ever again. Life insurance covers the gap between what your health insurance covers and additional the costs of ongoing treatment, rehabilitation and loss of income.
How can I get a life insurance quote?
Most providers allow you to get a quote online or by phone without disclosing your personal or financial information. A certified insurance consultant or agent can talk with you about the different policies out there that match your needs, providing a preliminary quote based on your age, gender and more.
You might be able to get a quote online, especially if you’re young or have an uncomplicated medical history. But life insurance is not as straightforward as other types of insurance, and the coverage and premiums available to you can vary wildly by age, health and habits. For a quote that more closely matches what you might find when you apply, talk with an agent about the type and level of protection you’re interested in. They can analyze your specific personal information, occupation, lifestyle and habits against your options for a more accurate idea of the premium you’ll pay.
How do I apply for coverage?
US citizens, permanent residents in the US at the time of applying and nonresidents can apply for coverage, though age restrictions vary among brands and products.
An insurance agent can help you review your current policy to help you decide whether you might benefit from switching to another provider or policy or increasing or decreasing the level of coverage in your current one.
If you’ve used tobacco at all within the past 12 months — whether casually or often — most insurers will classify you as a smoker.
No. You’re generally required to take out a separate policy for your partner if you choose not to add them when you sign up.
Maybe. But many insurers require medical or blood tests at application only if you indicate a pre-existing condition.
It’s likely, but coverage often depends on the provider, your condition and how you’re treating it. Providers enforce different requirements for pre-existing conditions, and so you’ll want to disclose your medical condition if asked. Your insurer might decide to exclude your pre-existing medical condition from your coverage. For instance, if you have a history of back problems, your insurer may exclude all claims related to back conditions from your policy.
Yes. You generally have two options:
Talk with an insurance agent or expert who might know other providers willing to cover you. Not every life insurance company assesses conditions in the same way, and you might find a provider that specializes in high-risk life insurance.
Ask your current provider to review your condition when it comes time to renew your policy. If your situation has changed, it might be willing to life the exclusion.
What won’t my life insurance policy pay for?
Generally, most providers cover all deaths but those that result from suicide or occur within the first two years of the policy. A limited form of life insurance like accidental death and dismemberment (AD&D) will cover death that results from an accident.If you have a pre-existing medical condition, your policy may exclude death that results from it for a set number of years from your policy’s start date.
Most policies will not pay a benefit for claims arising from:
Intentional self-inflicted injury or self-harm.
HIV/AIDS, hepatitis B, hepatitis C and other diseases unless contracted through the duties of your occupation.
Claims related to pregnancy, uncomplicated childbirth or miscarriage.
Claims caused by your engagement in unlawful acts.
Claims from aviation activity, unless you are a fare-paying passenger on a scheduled flight.
How do I manage my life insurance policy?
Yes. Talk with your provider about increasing or decreasing your coverage at any stage to meet your needs. Expect to participate in another round of assessments with your insurer, however.
Yes. Most providers require you to speak directly with an agent, but you might be able to start the process through an online account.
Yes. Most policies offer a 30-day “cooling off” period, whereby you can cancel your policy and receive a refund of any premiums you paid so far. You’re not eligible for premium refunds if you cancel your policy after this 30-day period.
It depends on your policy. Some policies provide coverage 24/7 anywhere in the world, while others exclude countries the US has issued travel advisories or warnings for.
How do I make a claim?
If you die while your policy is active, your life insurance provider pays out your death benefit to your designated beneficiaries. A beneficiary or representative of your estate will need to notify your provider of your death, completing required paperwork and submitting a death certificate to prove your claim.
While requirements vary by provider and policy, your beneficiary will likely need to provide:
A completed claim form.
The original policy document and schedule.
A copy of the policyholder’s birth certificate.
A copy of the policyholder’s death certificate.
A certified copy of the policyholder’s will.
Probate or letters of administration.
You might. Typically, your provider reduces your benefit by the amount you’re paid out and adjusts your premiums accordingly.
First, contact your insurer immediately to explain your hardship and discuss next steps. You might be able to freeze premiums for a short time until you’re back on your feet.
It depends on your provider. But most policies allow you to nominate up to five beneficiaries.
Maurice Thach is the publisher for life insurance and business insurance at Finder. His is favourite question is "Am I covered for _____?". Maurice has completed a Tier 1 Life Insurance Certification and a Tier 2 General Insurance Certification under ASIC's Regulatory Guide 146. This means he can confidently provide general advice for life insurance and non-life insurance products to Aussie readers everywhere. Outside of work, you'll probably find Maurice hitting up the nearest basketball court.
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