Buying Life Insurance: What Kind and How Much?

September 16, 2019
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Conventional wisdom says that life insurance is sold, not purchased. In other words, some people are reluctant to discuss the importance of owning life insurance, and others are simply unaware of the need to have life insurance. Although many large companies provide life insurance as part of their benefits package, this coverage may be insufficient.

Who needs life insurance? If there are individuals who depend on you for financial support, or if you work at home providing your family with such services as child care, cooking, and cleaning, you need life insurance. Older couples also may need life insurance to protect a surviving spouse against the possibility of the couple's retirement savings being depleted by unexpected medical expenses. And individuals with substantial assets may need life insurance to help reduce the effects of estate taxes or to transfer wealth to future generations.

Types of Insurance

Term insurance is the most basic, and generally least expensive, form of life insurance for people under age 50. A term policy is written for a specific period of time, typically 1 to 10 years, and may be renewable at the end of each term. Also, the premiums increase at the end of each term and can become prohibitively expensive for older individuals. A level term policy locks in the annual premium for periods of up to 30 years.

Declining Balance Term insurance, a variation on this theme, is often used as mortgage insurance since it can be written to match the amortization of your mortgage principal. While the premium stays constant over the term, the face value steadily declines. Once the mortgage is paid off, the insurance is no longer needed and the policy expires. Unlike many other policies, term insurance has no cash value. In this sense, it is "pure" insurance without any investment options. Benefits are paid only if you die during the policy's term. After the term ends, your coverage expires unless you choose to renew the policy. When buying term insurance, you might look for a policy that is renewable up to age 70 and convertible to permanent insurance without a medical exam.

Declining Balance Term insurance, a variation on this theme, is often used as mortgage insurance since it can be written to match the amortization of your mortgage principal. While the premium stays constant over the term, the face value steadily declines. Once the mortgage is paid off, the insurance is no longer needed and the policy expires. Unlike many other policies, term insurance has no cash value. In this sense, it is "pure" insurance without any investment options. Benefits are paid only if you die during the policy's term. After the term ends, your coverage expires unless you choose to renew the policy. When buying term insurance, you might look for a policy that is renewable up to age 70 and convertible to permanent insurance without a medical exam.

Universal Life is similar to whole life with the added benefit of potentially higher earnings on the savings component. Universal life policies are also highly flexible with regard to premiums and face value. Premiums can be increased, decreased or deferred, and cash values can be withdrawn. You may also have the option to change face values. Universal life policies typically offer a guaranteed return on cash value. You'll receive an annual statement that details cash value, total protection, earnings, and fees.

Universal Life is similar to whole life with the added benefit of potentially higher earnings on the savings component. Universal life policies are also highly flexible with regard to premiums and face value. Premiums can be increased, decreased or deferred, and cash values can be withdrawn. You may also have the option to change face values. Universal life policies typically offer a guaranteed return on cash value. You'll receive an annual statement that details cash value, total protection, earnings, and fees.

How Much Insurance Do I Need?

A popular approach to buying insurance is based on income replacement. In this approach, a formula of between five and 10 times your annual salary is often used to calculate how much coverage you need. Another approach is to purchase insurance based on your individual needs and preferences. The first step is to determine your unique income replacement needs.

Currently, a large portion of your income may go to taxes (insurance benefits are generally income tax free) and to support your own lifestyle. Start off by determining your net earnings after taxes. Then add up all your personal expenses such as housing, health care, food, clothing, transportation expenses, etc. This represents the amount that your insurance will need to replace. You'll want a death benefit amount which, when invested, will provide income annually to cover this amount. Then, you should add to that the amounts needed to fund one-time expenses such as college tuition for your children or paying down mortgage or debt.

Income replacement for nonworking spouses is an important and often overlooked insurance need. Coverage should provide for your costs for day care, housekeeping, or nursing care. Add to this any net earnings from part-time employment.

Finally, estimate your own "final expenses" such as estate taxes, uninsured medical costs, and funeral costs.

How Much Insurance Do I Need?

A popular approach to buying insurance is based on income replacement. In this approach, a formula of between five and 10 times your annual salary is often used to calculate how much coverage you need. Another approach is to purchase insurance based on your individual needs and preferences. The first step is to determine your unique income replacement needs.

Currently, a large portion of your income may go to taxes (insurance benefits are generally income tax free) and to support your own lifestyle. Start off by determining your net earnings after taxes. Then add up all your personal expenses such as housing, health care, food, clothing, transportation expenses, etc. This represents the amount that your insurance will need to replace. You'll want a death benefit amount which, when invested, will provide income annually to cover this amount. Then, you should add to that the amounts needed to fund one-time expenses such as college tuition for your children or paying down mortgage or debt.

Income replacement for nonworking spouses is an important and often overlooked insurance need. Coverage should provide for your costs for day care, housekeeping, or nursing care. Add to this any net earnings from part-time employment.

Finally, estimate your own "final expenses" such as estate taxes, uninsured medical costs, and funeral costs.