How Does Life Insurance Work?

Life insurance works by providing a financial safety net for loved ones if you pass away.

It’s essential to know the details of how life insurance works so you can decide what type of coverage you need, how much you need and how it will fit into your long-term financial planning.

What Is Life Insurance?

This is a contract between you and an insurance company. In exchange for your premium payments, the life insurance company will pay a lump sum known as a death benefit to your beneficiaries after your death, as long as your policy is in force. If you have permanent life insurance, there may be a cash value component, too.

What Is the Purpose of Life Insurance?

Financial protection and peace of mind are at the forefront of life insurance. The best  insurance companies offer coverage options that help you ensure your loved ones will be financially taken care of if you die. Knowing your family will not face financial hardship when you’re gone provides peace of mind.

What Is Life Insurance Used For?

This insurance beneficiaries can use the money paid out by a policy for whatever purpose they choose. Often this includes:

  • Paying for living expenses that were previously covered by the insured person’s income.
  • Paying off credit card bills, medical bills, mortgages or car loan balances.
  • Paying for funeral and final expense costs.
  • Funding children’s college tuition and expenses.

Having the safety net of this insurance can ensure that your family can stay in their home and pay for their wants and needs.

How Does Life Insurance Work?

This insurance works by providing your beneficiaries with a death benefit payout if you die, but only if your policy is in-force when you pass away—meaning you have paid the required premiums while you’re alive. The death benefit can be used for any purpose your beneficiaries choose.

Before you enter into a life insurance contract, the life insurance company will determine your required premiums. There are several factors that affect life insurance quotes, including:

  • Age
  • Gender
  • Health and medical history
  • Coverage amount you choose

Type of life insurance (such as term life vs. whole life)

The younger and healthier you are, the better your quotes will be. Comparing life insurance quotes with several reputable companies is a great way to start finding the best coverage for a good price.

There are two primary types of life insurance: term and permanent life:

Permanent life insurance—such as whole life insurance or universal life insurance—can provide lifetime coverage. Most types of permanent life insurance include the ability to accumulate cash value which can be accessed while you’re still living.

Term life insurance provides protection for a certain period. Term life is usually the cheapest life insurance option and it has no cash value.

What Does Life Insurance Cover?

Life insurance typically covers all causes of death—generally excluding suicide within the first two years of the policy. That means all these causes of death, and more, are covered:

  • An accident, such as a car crash
  • Heart attack or disease
  • Homicide (except if the insured is murdered by a beneficiary)
  • Illness
  • Old age
  • War or terrorism

Best Life Insurance Companies

What Does Life Insurance Exclude?

Most life insurance policies have a suicide exclusion: The company will not pay out a death benefit for suicide within the first two years of the policy.

Although suicide is usually the only listed exclusion, a life insurance company still has the right to deny a claim if it believes there was misrepresentation on the life insurance application, especially if the death is within the first couple of years of owning the policy. For example, if someone lies about their health or other information on the application, the life insurance company could deny a claim by the beneficiaries.

In other extremely narrow cases, a life insurance claim could be denied if the beneficiary killed the insured person. This exclusion is called the “slayer rule.”

If the claim is disputed by someone who says the policyholder was coerced into changing the beneficiary, a court may have to decide who gets the death benefit money. Still, the life insurance company will pay the claim once a court decides who is the rightful beneficiary.

Main Types of Life Coverage

Term Life Cover

In addition to being the most affordable type of life insurance, term life insurance is generally the most popular type of life insurance sold.

Term life insurance provides coverage for a certain amount of time and the premium payments stay the same amount for the duration of the policy. Typical choices are policy lengths are 10, 15, 20, 25 or 30 years.

If you pass away within the term of your policy, your beneficiaries can make a claim and receive the death benefit money, tax-free.

Once the term of the policy expires, you may be able to renew the coverage in increments of one year, known as guaranteed renewability. But each year of renewal will be at a higher rate.

Permanent Life Coverage

Permanent life Coverage provides lifelong coverage. It’s more expensive than term life because it:

  • Can last for the duration of your life.
  • Usually builds cash value.
  • Has internal policy costs, which could potentially be high.

The cash value component accumulates on a tax-deferred basis over the life of the policy. It acts as a savings portion of the policy. Typically, you can borrow against the policy’s cash value or make a withdrawal. If you decide to end the policy, you can get the cash value minus any surrender charge.

In some policies the cash value may build slowly over many years, so don’t count on having access to a lot of cash value right away. Your policy illustration will show the projected cash value.

There are several varieties of permanent life insurance:

  • Whole life insurance offers a fixed death benefit and cash value component that grows at a guaranteed rate of return. Many whole life insurance policies pay out dividends that can be used to reduce premium payments or can add to your cash value.
  • Universal life insurance often offers more flexibility than a whole life insurance policy. You may be able to alter your premium payments and death benefit, within certain limits. With a universal  insurance policy, the cash value will build depending on the policy type. For example, an indexed universal life insurance policy will have cash value tied to an index such as the S&P 500. A variable universal life policy will typically have investment sub-accounts that you can choose and manage.
  • Burial insurance is a small whole life policy with a small death benefit, often between $5,000 and $25,000. Burial insurance is designed to cover only funeral costs and final expenses.
  • Survivorship  insurance or “second to die insurance” insures two people under one policy, usually a married couple. When both spouses have passed away, the policy pays out the death benefit to the beneficiaries. Usually, survivorship insurance is part of a larger financial plan to fund a trust or pay federal estate taxes.

Life Insurance Payout Options

There are several options for life insurance payments. The options your benefiairies receive will depend on the insurance company and type of policy. Here are some of the most common.

  • Lump sum payout. Beneficiaries receive the entire death benefit at once.
  • Retained asset account payout. Beneficiaries leave the payout with the insurance company in an account that earns interest and can access the account when needed.
  • Life income payout. The payout is converted to an annuity and beneficiaries receive lifetime payments.
  • Life income with period certain payout. The payout is converted to an annuity and beneficiaries receive payments for the specified period.
  • Specific income payout. This payout option allows beneficiaries to receive the payout in installments for a specific period of time and number of payments.

How to Choose the Right Insurance Policy Type

With all of the insurance options available, it may seem complicated to choose the right one.  Start by deciding between term life and permanent insurance.

Consider a term insurance policy if you need insurance for a specific amount of time. For instance, you may want life insurance to cover your working years as possible “income replacement” for your family if you pass away.

Term life insurance is also a good choice if your budget is limited. Since term insurance provides protection for a specific amount of time, and it’s not a cash value insurance policy, the rates will be lower than permanent life insurance.

As you enter different stages of life, your  insurance needs may change. Many term insurance policies are convertible to a permanent policy. The options will depend on your policy and insurer. Term life conversion allows you to switch to a permanent policy without re-applying or taking an insurance medical exam.

On the other hand, a permanent insurance policy will last for the duration of your life. If building cash value is important to you, look at permanent  insurance options. But if you’re purchasing a permanent policy only to capitalize on the cash value accumulation, depending on the policy, you’re better off putting your money into a savings or investment vehicle, so you’re not paying for the life insurance and charges within a permanent policy.

And cash value isn’t typically intended for beneficiaries. Upon death, any cash value generally reverts back to the insurance company. Your beneficiaries get the policy’s death benefit, not the death benefit plus cash value. That said, some policy types will offer the death benefit plus cash value, but for a higher price.

How Much Does Life Coverage Cost?

Term life insurance costs an average of $203 a year for a 30-year-old woman with a 20-year, $500,000 term life  policy, according to our analysis of  insurance companies. The same policy for a 30-year-old male is $244 a year.

The cost of insurance varies significantly depending on several different factors. One of the biggest cost factors will be the type of insurance you buy. For example, a term life policy is significantly less expensive than a whole life policy for the same amount of coverage.

Here are some of the most common factors affecting  insurance rates:

  • Age. The younger you are when you buy a policy the less you’ll pay. That’s because your chance of death is smaller.
  • Sex. Females have a life expectancy that is nearly five years longer than males, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. This means that men generally pay more for life insurance than women (except in Montana where insurers must provide gender-neutral insurance rates).
  • Health. Your health has a major impact on your insurance rates. The insurer will evaluate your past and current medical conditions in order to calculate your life expectancy.
  • Lifestyle. Your driving history (such as a DUI conviction), criminal record, and dangerous occupations and hobbies (such as scuba diving) can all result in higher life insurance rates.

How to Choose a Life Coverage Amount

A good rule of thumb for estimating how much coverage you need is to:

  • Add up all the expenses you want to cover, such as income replacement for your work, a mortgage and children’s college expenses.
  • From that, subtract the amounts that your family could use to cover those expenses, such as savings and existing insurance. Leave out retirement savings if your spouse will need that later on.
  • The resulting number is how much life cover you need. It may look high, especially if you’ve factored in income replacement for many years. Still, insurance quotes are free, so it doesn’t hurt to price out the coverage you need.
  • If it turns out to be unaffordable, you can buy what you can afford now to lock in a good rate. You can buy more later, just be aware that several years from now your rate will be based on your older age and any health conditions you’ve developed.

How to Get Life Coverage Quotes

According to the Insurance Barometer Report, 49% of people  who don’t have life coverage say the reason why they don’t have coverage is because life cover is too expensive. At the same time, many consumers overestimate the cost. The only way to know what you will pay is to get life insurance quotes from a few companies. Quotes are free. An experienced life insurance agent will know what companies tend to give the best prices based on your age, health and desired coverage amount.

Expect to be asked about your age, health, tobacco use, your family health history, driving record, and any dangerous occupations or hobbies.

When you have a quote that you like, you can start a formal application. You answer more questions in detail and apply for a specific policy type, amount of coverage and policy length (if you’re buying term life coverage).

Once you’ve submitted the application, some insurers may require an insurance medical exam. These exams can take place at your home, work or sometimes a local exam office.

The time it takes to process an application varies significantly among companies and policy type.

Some insurers offer no-exam insurance, including instant approval for people who qualify, who are generally younger (under age 60) and without medical issues. Data about you is gathered from third-party sources, so your health is still judged.

Some insurers offer no-exam policies that are guaranteed issue life insurance. You can’t be turned down. These applications use no health information about you, so they can be much more expensive.

Some insurers use “accelerated underwriting” to skip the medical exam and process applications in a day or a week, depending on the company.

And some insurers use a traditional process with a medical exam and an approval process that can take over a month.

How to Choose a Beneficiary

An insurance beneficiary is the person who can claim the death benefit after you pass away.

You can name multiple beneficiaries and decide what percentage they each will receive when you die. Additionally, you should add contingent beneficiaries who will receive the death benefit if your primary beneficiaries have died.

Not everyone names people as beneficiaries. Some people name trusts. By creating a revocable living trust and naming it as the insurance beneficiary, you can ensure that the money is used according to your wishes. For example, the trust money could be used to take care of children.

If you decide to name a trust the beneficiary of your policy, make sure to work with an attorney to structure the trust correctly. It’s also wise to work with a financial planner so that a trust is part of your larger financial plan.

It’s crucial to update and review your beneficiary selections regularly. For example, life events such as a marriage or a divorce can impact your selection.

To update your beneficiaries, contact your life insurer and submit a change of beneficiary form. Making changes only on a will won’t affect life cover.

How Does a Beneficiary Make a Claim?

  • Claims can be paid quickly—in about a week, assuming the insurer has all the documents it needs. Don’t assume a life coverage company will contact you. It’s unlikely they know that your relative died. While some insurers are proactive in monitoring for insured customers who have passed away, they won’t discover a death immediately.
  • Death certificate: To start the claim process you’ll need to submit a certified copy of the death certificate. The insurer won’t send it back. Therefore, you may want to request a few certified copies if you need them for multiple purposes.
  • Contact the insurance company right away: While you may have a lot on your plate after a loved one passes away, the sooner you contact the insurer, the sooner you can get the money.
  • Verify you have met all claim requirements: Once all of the claim paperwork is done, make sure you have all supporting documentation attached. This can include a claim form and death certificate.

Claims are typically paid within 30 days after the insurer receives the necessary documents.

You don’t need an original copy of the insurance policy to make a claim. You only need to know the name of the insurance company and contact them to initiate the claim.

That’s why it’s important to let your beneficiaries know that you have a policy and tell them the name of the insurer. And insurers are contractually obligated to pay only the people listed on the policy.

Life insurance beneficiaries don’t have any restrictions on how they can use a insurance payout. Money from insurance money can be used to:

  • Cover regular household expenses
  • Pay off a mortgage or other loans
  • Fund children’s education
  • Keep a family business going
  • Pay for the funeral and other final expenses

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