What are the different kinds of life insurance policies and how do they work?

There are two basic types of life insurance: Term and permanent life insurance. A term life insurance policy provides coverage for a specific period of time, typically between 10 and 30 years. It is sometimes called “pure life insurance” because unlike the permanent policy or whole life insurance, there’s no cash value component to the policy – once the term is over, there’s nothing left.

Permanent life insurance provides coverage that lasts your entire life.4 Unlike term, it’s not a “pure life insurance” product because it includes a cash value component which helps make coverage last while the insured is alive and premiums are paid, and while providing other financial benefits. A portion of your premium dollars grows tax-deferred5 over time – but the entire death benefit is immediately payable from the first day you have the policy. The cash value on the other hand, may take some years to build up to a significant amount.6

There are two main types of permanent insurance: whole and universal life. Whole life insurance is simpler – the premium remains the same for life, the death benefit is guaranteed, and the cash value grows at a guaranteed rate. Universal life insurance can be less expensive, but the premiums, death benefit, and cash value growth rate can vary, making the policy more complex.

The following chart highlights the key differences between the three types of polices.

Term life, whole life, and universal life compared

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