Life insurance may be divided into two basic classes – temporary and permanent or following subclasses - term, universal, whole life, variable, variable universal and endowment life insurance.
Term life insurance (term assurance in British English) provides for life insurance coverage for a specified term of years for a specified premium. The policy does not accumulate cash value. Term is generally considered "pure" insurance, where the premium buys protection in the event of death and nothing else. (See Theory of Decreasing Responsibility and buy term and invest the difference.) Term insurance premiums are typically low because both the insurer and the policy owner agree that the death of the insured is unlikely during the term of coverage.
The three key factors to be considered in term insurance are: face amount (protection or death benefit), premium to be paid (cost to the insured), and length of coverage (term).
Various (U.S.) insurance companies sell term insurance with many different combinations of these three parameters. The face amount can remain constant or decline. The term can be for one or more years. The premium can remain level or increase. A common type of term is called annual renewable term. It is a one year policy but the insurance company guarantees it will issue a policy of equal or lesser amount without regard to the insurability of the insured and with a premium set for the insured's age at that time. Another common type of term insurance is mortgage insurance, which is usually a level premium, declining face value policy. The face amount is intended to equal the amount of the mortgage on the policy owner’s residence so the mortgage will be paid if the insured dies.
A policy holder insures his life for a specified term. If he dies before that specified term is up, his estate or named beneficiary(ies) receive(s) a payout. If he does not die before the term is up, he receives nothing. In the past these policies would almost always exclude suicide. However, after a number of court judgments against the industry, payouts do occur on death by suicide (presumably except for in the unlikely case that it can be shown that the suicide was just to benefit from the policy). Generally, if an insured person commits suicide within the first two policy years, the insurer will return the premiums paid. However, a death benefit will usually be paid if the suicide occurs after the two year period.
Permanent life insurance is life insurance that remains in force (in-line) until the policy matures (pays out), unless the owner fails to pay the premium when due (the policy expires). The policy cannot be canceled by the insurer for any reason except fraud in the application, and that cancellation must occur within a period of time defined by law (usually two years). Permanent insurance builds a cash value that reduces the amount at risk to the insurance company and thus the insurance expense over time. This means that a policy with a million dollars face value can be relatively inexpensive to a 70 year old because the actual amount of insurance purchased is much less than one million dollars. The owner can access the money in the cash value by withdrawing money, borrowing the cash value, or surrendering the policy and receiving the surrender value.
The three basic types of permanent insurance are whole life, universal life, and endowment.
Whole life coverage
Whole life insurance provides for a level premium, and a cash value table included in the policy guaranteed by the company. The primary advantages of whole life are guaranteed death benefits, guaranteed cash values, fixed and known annual premiums, and mortality and expense charges will not reduce the cash value shown in the policy. The primary disadvantages of whole life are premium inflexibility, and the internal rate of return in the policy may not be competitive with other savings alternatives. Riders are available that can allow one to increase the death benefit by paying additional premium. The death benefit can also be increased through the use of policy dividends. Dividends cannot be guaranteed and may be higher or lower than historical rates over time. Premiums are much higher than term insurance in the short-term, but cumulative premiums are roughly equal if policies are kept in force until average life expectancy.
Cash value can be accessed at any time through policy "loans". Since these loans decrease the death benefit if not paid back, payback is optional. Cash values are not paid to the beneficiary upon the death of the insured; the beneficiary receives the death benefit only. If the dividend option: Paid up additions is elected, dividend cash values will purchase additional death benefit which will increase the death benefit of the policy to the named beneficiary.
Universal life coverage
Universal life insurance (UL) is a relatively new insurance product intended to provide permanent insurance coverage with greater flexibility in premium payment and the potential for a higher internal rate of return. A universal life policy includes a cash account. Premiums increase the cash account. Interest is paid within the policy (credited) on the account at a rate specified by the company. This rate has a guaranteed minimum but usually is higher than that minimum. Mortality charges and administrative costs are charged against (reduce) the cash account. The surrender value of the policy is the amount remaining in the cash account less applicable surrender charges, if any.
With all life insurance, there are basically two functions that make it work. There's a mortality function and a cash function. The mortality function would be the classical notion of pooling risk where the premiums paid by everybody else would cover the death benefit for the one or two who will die for a given period of time. The cash function inherent in all life insurance says that if a person is to reach age 95 to 100 (the age varies depending on state and company), then the policy matures and endows the face value of the policy.
Actuarially, it is reasoned that out of a group of 1000 people, if even 10 of them live to age 95, then the mortality function alone will not be able to cover the cash function. So in order to cover the cash function, a minimum rate of investment return on the premiums will be required in the event that a policy matures.
Universal life policies guarantee, to some extent, the death proceeds, but not the cash function - thus the flexible premiums and interest returns. If interest rates are high, then the dividends help reduce premiums. If interest rates are low, then the customer would have to pay additional premiums in order to keep the policy in force. When interest rates are above the minimum required, then the customer has the flexibility to pay less as investment returns cover the remainder to keep the policy in force.
The universal life policy addresses the perceived disadvantages of whole life. Premiums are flexible. The internal rate of return is usually higher because it moves with the financial markets. Mortality costs and administrative charges are known. And cash value may be considered more easily attainable because the owner can discontinue premiums if the cash value allows it. And universal life has a more flexible death benefit because the owner can select one of two death benefit options, Option A and Option B.
Option A pays the face amount at death as it's designed to have the cash value equal the death benefit at age 95. Option B pays the face amount plus the cash value, as it's designed to increase the net death benefit as cash values accumulate. Option B does carry with it a caveat. This caveat is that in order for the policy to keep its tax favored life insurance status, it must stay within a corridor specified by state and federal laws that prevent abuses such as attaching a million dollars in cash value to a two dollar insurance policy. The interesting part about this corridor is that for those people who can make it to age 95-100, this corridor requirement goes away and your cash value can equal exactly the face amount of insurance. If this corridor is ever violated, then the universal life policy will be treated as, and in effect turn into, a Modified Endowment Contract (or more commonly referred to as a MEC).
But universal life has its own disadvantages which stem primarily from this flexibility. The policy lacks the fundamental guarantee that the policy will be in force unless sufficient premiums have been paid and cash values are not guaranteed.
Universal life policies are sometimes erroneously referred to as self-sustaining policies. In the 1980s, when interest rates were high, the cash value accumulated at a more accelerated rate, and universal life coverage was often sold by agents as a policy that could be self-paying. Many policies did sustain themselves for a prolonged period, but the combination of lower interest rates and an increasing cost of insurance as the insured ages meant that for many policies, the cash option was diminished or depleted.
Variable universal life Insurance (VUL) is not the same as universal life, even though they both have cash values attached to them. These differences are in how the cash accounts are managed; thus having a great effect on how they are treated for taxation. The cash account within a VUL is held in the insurer's "separate account" (generally in mutual funds, managed by a fund manager).
Another type of permanent insurance is Limited-pay life insurance, in which all the premiums are paid over a specified period after which no additional premiums are due to keep the policy in force. Common limited pay periods include 10-year, 20-year, and paid-up at age 65.
Main article: Endowment policy
Endowments are policies in which the cash value built up inside the policy, equals the death benefit (face amount) at a certain age. The age this commences is known as the endowment age. Endowments are considerably more expensive (in terms of annual premiums) than either whole life or universal life because the premium paying period is shortened and the endowment date is earlier.
In the United States, the Technical Corrections Act of 1988 tightened the rules on tax shelters (creating modified endowments). These follow tax rules as annuities and IRAs do.
Endowment Insurance is paid out whether the insured lives or dies, after a specific period (e.g. 15 years) or a specific age (e.g. 65).
Accidental death is a limited life insurance that is designed to cover the insured when they pass away due to an accident. Accidents include anything from an injury, but do not typically cover any deaths resulting from health problems or suicide. Because they only cover accidents, these policies are much less expensive than other life insurances.
It is also very commonly offered as "accidental death and dismemberment insurance", also known as an AD&D policy. In an AD&D policy, benefits are available not only for accidental death, but also for loss of limbs or bodily functions such as sight and hearing, etc.
Accidental death and AD&D policies very rarely pay a benefit; either the cause of death is not covered, or the coverage is not maintained after the accident until death occurs. To be aware of what coverage they have, an insured should always review their policy for what it covers and what it excludes. Often, it does not cover an insured who puts themselves at risk in activities such as: parachuting, flying an airplane, professional sports, or involvement in a war (military or not). Also, some insurers will exclude death and injury caused by proximate causes due to (but not limited to) racing on wheels and mountaineering.
Accidental death benefits can also be added to a standard life insurance policy as a rider. If this rider is purchased, the policy will generally pay double the face amount if the insured dies due to an accident. This used to be commonly referred to as a double indemnity coverage. In some cases, some companies may even offer a triple indemnity cover.