Summary: Life Insurance quite generally is a policy whereby you pay a company a premium so that if you die while covered your descendents receive financial benefits.
Life Insurance quite generally is a policy whereby you pay a company a premium so that if you die while covered your descendents receive financial benefits. Within the larger Life Insurance window there exist two broad categories of policies, Term and Whole life (Whole Life is also known by the equivalent term Universal Life Insurance). Term Life is exactly what its name implies, valid only for a certain period of time, whereas Whole life lasts the duration of one's life.
Because Term Life has a structured beginning and end, typically from 1 to 30 years, it is normally quite a bit cheaper than Whole Life. That is because under Whole Life it is assured that the insurer will eventually pay out (as we all eventually die). Under Term Life, however, there is a very good chance that you will live through the period of the policy and thus the insurance company can simply take your premiums without ever having to pay out anything.
Another important distinction between Term and Whole Life is the fact that at the end of the Term Policy, the policyholder is left with nothing but his own health. On the other hand, with a Whole Life Policy the insurer often takes a portion of the premium and places it into a savings account for the policyholder. In case of emergency later in life, the Whole Life Policy Holder can access that money to meet some needs while still living. As you can imagine, the Insurance Company raises the price they charge for access to all of this.
Deciding Between the Two
So, how does one decide between Term and Whole Life Insurance? To best answer that question it is important to ask why you need the insurance in the first place. Is it because you have young children and a spouse who does not have the earning potential to get your children through college? Or is it because you work in a dangerous industry and will regularly face the prospect of death over the next few years? These are both excellent candidates for Term Life Insurance. In the first case, it is important that the provider ensure enough financial support for approximately 10 years and then the need drops off, while the second example may require a shorter 3 - 5 year Term Life Policy.
On the other hand, let's imagine that you have a mentally handicapped person you will support indefinitely, or a spouse that has never worked at all. These may be better candidates for Whole Life as the financial need they feel responsible for extends not only to some definite period in the future, but as long as the other person is alive. Under these circumstances, paying the premium for Whole Life might be worthwhile.
Term and Whole Life Insurance fill an important void in many lives by providing some assurance that in case of an accident, loved ones will not be left stranded. It is important to remember, however, that the policies are not panaceas. The savings rate on Whole Life Policies is usually dismal compared to open market rates, and with Term, you are making payments on a product you may never use. Ultimately, the decision to purchase either of these products should involve weighing your personal risk and health, your current and expected financial situation, and alternative uses for funds you have earmarked for a policy.