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What is Life Insurance?
A life insurance policy is a contract between the policy holder (you) and an insurance company. In exchange for a fee or premium, the insurance company pays a death benefit to your assignees/beneficiaries if you die. Life insurance coverage provides financial security against misfortune or difficulty. In fact, it could be used to pay off college costs, replace your wages, or to pay off the mortgage.
Why Should I Buy Life Insurance?
Many financial experts consider life insurance to be the cornerstone of sound financial planning. It can be an important tool in the following situations:
1. Replace income for dependents
If people depend on an individual’s income, life insurance can replace that income if the person dies. The most common example of this is parents with young children. Insurance to replace income can be especially useful if the government- or employer sponsored benefits of the surviving spouse or domestic partner will be reduced after their companion dies.
2. Pay final expenses
Life insurance can pay funeral and burial costs, probate and other estate administration costs, debts and medical expenses not covered by health insurance.
3. Create an inheritance for heirs
Even those with no other assets to pass on, can create an inheritance by buying a life insurance policy and naming their heirs as beneficiaries.
4. Pay federal “death” taxes and state “death” taxes
Life insurance benefits can pay for estate taxes so that heirs will not have to liquidate other assets or take a smaller inheritance. Changes in the federal “death” tax rules between now and January 1, 2011 will likely lessen the impact of this tax on some people, but some states are offsetting those federal decreases with increases in their state-level estate taxes.
5. Make significant charitable contributions
By making a charity the beneficiary of their life insurance policies, individuals can make a much larger contribution than if they donated the cash equivalent of the policy’s premiums.
6. Create a source of savings
Some types of life insurance create a cash value that, if not paid out as a death benefit, can be borrowed or withdrawn on the owner’s request. Since most people make paying their life insurance policy premiums a high priority, buying a cash-value type policy can create a kind of “forced” savings plan. Furthermore, the interest credited is tax deferred (and tax exempt if the money is paid as a death claim).
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Types of Life Insurance
There are two major types of life insurance—term and whole life.
1. Term Life
Term insurance is the simplest form of life insurance. It pays only if death occurs during the term of the policy, which is usually from one to 30 years. Most term policies have no other benefit provisions. There are two basic types of term life insurance policies—level term and decreasing term. Level term means that the death benefit stays the same throughout the duration of the policy. Decreasing term means that the death benefit drops, usually in one-year increments, over the course of the policy’s term.
2. Whole Life/Permanent Life
Whole life or permanent insurance pays a death benefit whenever the policyholder dies. There are three major types of whole life or permanent life insurance—traditional whole life, universal life, and variable universal life, and there are variations within each type.
In the case of traditional whole life, both the death benefit and the premium are designed to stay the same (level) throughout the life of the policy. The cost per $1,000 of benefit increases as the insured person ages, and it obviously gets very high when the insured lives to 80 and beyond. The insurance company keeps the premium level by charging a premium that, in the early years, is higher than what is needed to pay claims, investing that money, and then using it to supplement the level premium to help pay the cost of life insurance for older people.
By law, when these “overpayments” reach a certain amount, they must be available to the policyholder as a cash value if he or she decides not to continue with the original plan. The cash value is an alternative, not an additional, benefit under the policy.
3. Universal Life
Universal life, also known as adjustable life, allows more flexibility than traditional whole life policies. The savings vehicle (called a cash value account) generally earns a money market rate of interest. After money has accumulated in the account, the policyholder will also have the option of altering premium payments—providing there is enough money in the account to cover the costs.
4. Variable Life
Variable life policies combine death protection with a savings account that can be invested in stocks, bonds and money market mutual funds. The value of the policy may grow more quickly, but involves more risk. If investments do not perform well, the cash value and death benefit may decrease. Some policies, however, guarantee that the death benefit will not fall below a minimum level. Another variant, universal variable life, combines the features of variable and universal life policies. It has the investment risks and rewards characteristic of variable life insurance, coupled with the ability to adjust premiums and death benefits that is characteristic of universal life insurance.
How much life insurance do I need?
In most cases, if you have no dependents and have enough money to pay your final expenses, you don’t need any life insurance.
If you want to create an inheritance or make a charitable contribution, buy enough life insurance to achieve those goals.
If you have dependents, buy enough life insurance so that, when combined with other sources of income, it will replace the income you now generate for them, plus enough to offset any additional expenses they will incur to replace services you provide (for a simple example, if you do your own taxes, the survivors might have to hire a professional tax preparer). Also, your family might need extra money to make some changes after you die. For example, they may want to relocate, or your spouse may need to go back to school to be in a better position to help support the family.
You should also plan to replace “hidden income” that would be lost at death. Hidden income is income that you receive through your employment but that isn’t part of your gross wages. It includes things like your employer’s subsidy of your health insurance premium, the matching contribution to your 401(k) plan, and many other “perks,” large and small. This is an often-overlooked insurance need: the cost of replacing just your health insurance and retirement contributions could be the equivalent of $2,000 per month or more.
Of course, you should also plan for expenses that arise at death. These include the funeral costs, taxes and administrative costs associated with “winding up” an estate and passing property to heirs. At a minimum, plan for $15,000.
Other sources of income
Most families have some sources of post-death income besides life insurance. The most common source is Social Security survivors’ benefits.
Social Security survivors’ benefits can be substantial. For example, for a 35-year-old person who was earning a $36,000 salary at death, maximum Social Security survivors’ monthly income benefits for a spouse and two children under age 18 could be about $2,400 per month, and this amount would increase each year to match inflation. (It drops slightly when the survivors are a spouse and one child under 18, and stops completely when there are no children under 18. Also, the surviving spouse’s benefit would be reduced if he or she earns income over a certain limit.)
Many also have life insurance through an employer plan, and some from another affiliation, such as through an association they belong to or a credit card. If you have a vested pension benefit, it might have a death component. Although these sources might provide a lot of income, they rarely provide enough. And it probably isn’t wise to count on death benefits that are connected with a particular job, since you might die after switching to a different job, or while you are unemployed.
A multiple of salary?
Many pundits recommend buying life insurance equal to a multiple of your salary. For example, one financial advice columnist recommends buying insurance equal to 20 times your salary before taxes. She chose 20 because, if the benefit is invested in bonds that pay 5 percent interest, it would produce an amount equal to your salary at death, so the survivors could live off the interest and wouldn’t have to “invade” the principal.
However, this simplistic formula implicitly assumes no inflation and assumes that one could assemble a bond portfolio that, after expenses, would provide a 5 percent interest stream every year. But assuming inflation is 3 percent per year, the purchasing power of a gross income of $50,000 would drop to about $38,300 in the 10th year. To avoid this income drop-off, the survivors would have to “invade” the principal each year. And if they did, they would run out of money in the 16th year.
The “multiple of salary” approach also ignores other sources of income, such as those mentioned previously.
A simple example
Suppose a surviving spouse didn’t work and had two children, ages 4 and 1, in her care. Suppose her deceased husband earned $36,000 at death and was covered by Social Security but had no other death benefits or life insurance. Assume the surviving spouse is 36.
Assume that the deceased spent $6,000 from income on his own living expenses and the cost of working. Assume, for simplicity, that the deceased performed services for the family (such as property maintenance, income tax and other financial management, and occasional child care) for which the survivors will need to pay $6,000 per year. Assume that the survivors will have to buy health insurance to replace the coverage the deceased had at work, and that this will cost $12,000 per year.
Taken together, the survivors will need to replace the equivalent of $48,000 of income, adjusted each year for an assumed 4 percent inflation.
Thanks to Social Security, the survivors would need life insurance to replace only about $1,700 per month of lost wage income (adjusted for inflation) for 14 years until the older child reaches 18; Social Security would provide the rest. The survivors would need life insurance to replace about $2,100 per month (adjusted for inflation) for three more years when the non-working surviving spouse has only one child under 18 in her care.
The life insurance amount needed today to provide the $1,700 and $2,100 monthly amounts is roughly $360,000. Adding $15,000 for funeral and other final expenses brings the minimum life insurance needed for the example to $375,000.