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Deciding between term life insurance and permanent life insurance, including whole life insurance, depends on your preferences, life situation and finances.

The main difference between the two is that term life insurance is for a set period; permanent life insurance covers you at a much higher cost for the remainder of your life.

Keep reading to find out how term and permanent life insurance work and how cash value works aiding you in deciding which policy suits you the best.

  • Term life insurance offers the most coverage for the least amount of money, making it a popular choice for those looking to replace a person's income in case of early death.
  • Term life insurance policies are available in periods of 10, 15, 20 or 30 years, after which the policy lapses unless renewed.
  • Permanent life insurance covers you for your entire lifetime and usually comes at a much higher price than term life insurance. One feature that makes permanent life insurance different is its ability to gain cash value.
  • There are four main variations of permanent life: whole (or ordinary) life, universal (or adjustable) life, variable life, and variable universal life.

How do term and permanent life insurance work?

Term life insurance offers the most amount of coverage for the least amount of money. The most common reason to buy life insurance is to replace a person's income in case of an early death. Term life insurance also providers the most return for your premiums.

Term life offers policies in periods, such as 10, 15, 20 and 30 years. Your policy lapses unless you renew the policy at the end of the period. A word of warning: the policy will cost a lot more money if you renew your policy later. Why?

You'll be that much older. Your age and health status are two important factors in the cost of life insurance. You might be able to convert your term life to permanent life depending on your policy. (Find out more at "6 reasons why you should convert term life insurance to permanent life insurance.")

Permanent life insurance offers protection for your entire life (as long as you pay your premiums) and more flexibility than term life insurance.

However, it usually comes at a much higher price. One feature that makes permanent life insurance different is its ability to gain cash value. A portion of the money you pay into your premium goes into a cash value portion that grows over time and becomes available for your use after a certain period.

Having cash value means you can tap into your permanent life insurance policy if you find you need money later. Some people may even use money from a permanent life insurance policy to help with retirement.

How does cash value work?

The portion of your payment that goes toward the policy's cash value is large in the beginning but decreases slowly as time passes. That's because permanent life insurance payments are made up of two parts: the regular insurance premium, which is comparable to the premium amount for the same coverage in a term life policy, and the cash value, or "overpayment" amount.

The insurance company invests the overpayment money and later uses it to pay for the higher costs of insurance as you age. In this way, the company can keep your premiums the same instead of increasing them over time. This cash value amount becomes available for your use later.

The policy's cash value can work differently and be used for different reasons depending on the type of permanent life insurance you choose.

Types of permanent life insurance

There are four main variations of permanent life: whole (or ordinary) life, universal (or adjustable) life, variable life, and variable universal life.

  • Whole life insurance is a predictable policy. It offers a guaranteed benefit, a guaranteed earnings rate on your cash value and a level premium. You may also earn dividends based on how well the company performs. Whole life is the most basic kind of permanent life insurance.
  • Universal life insurance is a flexible option. It lets you vary your premium payments. After the first premium, you can usually make payments at any time. If you have extra money, you can pay more. If you can't afford to make a payment, you can skip it or pay less. The cash value portion usually operates similarly as with whole life insurance. A problem with universal life is that if you don't make enough payments or the company does not perform as expected, your policy could lapse. Newer types of universal life policies include guarantees that this will not happen, so be sure that you explore this option. Universal life can be one of the cheapest forms of permanent life insurance.
  • Variable life insurance lets you invest your policy premiums. The issue with this is that if the investments perform poorly, the death benefit and cash value will decrease. On the other hand, if the investments do well, the death benefit and cash value can greatly exceed those of a normal policy. Variable life is one of the riskiest forms of permanent insurance, although its rewards can be great as well.
  • Variable universal life insurance is a combination of variable and universal life insurance. It allows you to vary your payments, invest your policy premiums and vary your coverage amount. Variable universal life insurance is the most flexible type of permanent life insurance and can be either risky or predictable, depending on how you use it.

Which policy is best depends on what you want from your life insurance. 

Term life vs. permanent life: which is better?

Buying life insurance is a highly personal decision. There is no perfect fit for everybody.Term vs. perm

When deciding to go either term life or permanent life, you will want to think about why you need life insurance and what you want to get out of it. Let's take a look at which scenarios work best for each type of policy.

Term life might be the better fit if:

  • You want the cheapest life insurance coverage.
  • You want to make sure your family is protected for a specific number of years. For instance, you have 20 years left on your mortgage and your children will be out of college by then. In that case, you may want a 20-year term-life policy to cover that period.

Permanent life could be the right choice if:

  • You want a life insurance policy that isn't limited to a period and its death benefit is guaranteed.
  • You want life insurance with cash value.
  • You have a lifelong dependent that will need care after you die. This might include a child with special needs.

After you've decided which type of life insurance policy you want, make sure to shop around to find the right policy for your situation. Research each insurance company's records. You can do this by researching online reviews and checking their financial records. (See Insure's "Best Life Insurance Companies.")

Once you're comfortable with multiple insurance companies, request quotes for the same policies. This includes any riders or extras that you want on the policy. Whether you choose term or permanent insurance, get quotes from multiple companies and figure out which one makes the most sense for you.

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