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What is life insurance?

Life Insurance 101

A common belief about life insurance is that it’s complex and difficult to understand. And at times, it can seem to be. When you consider all of the options available to you such as types of life insurance, additional riders, face amounts, cash value accounts, etc. the details can get overwhelming. But life insurance as a concept is fairly easy to understand. Life insurance is a contract involving three parties – an insured person, a life insurance provider and a beneficiary. Depending on the product, it is designed to pay a benefit to the beneficiary or beneficiaries when the insured person dies or becomes critically ill.

Life insurance death benefits are generally free from federal income tax,1 making them an attractive option when it comes to legacy planning.


Types of life insurance

Technically, there are many different types of life insurance, but for the purposes of this exercise, we’ll stick to the most common ones: Term, Whole, and Universal life insurance.

Term life insurance

Term life insurance provides coverage for a defined number of years. You generally pay a fixed premium for a policy that covers you for a specific period of time and pays out a set amount if you die within this time period. As term life insurance is the most basic type of life insurance, it’s also typically the most affordable.

Although life is full of happy milestones, we all have to deal with unforeseen challenges that can result in financial hardship. Term life insurance can help your family to continue to meet financial obligations such as mortgage payments and college tuition in the event of your unexpected death.

Term insurance highlights:

Duration of coverage: Choose from 10,15, 20, 25, or 30 years
Premiums: Stay the same for the duration of the selected term, although will generally increase if coverage is renewed
Cost: $*
Death benefit: Fixed
Cash Value: No

Whole life insurance

If you’re looking for a lifetime of protection, whole life insurance may be the ideal choice for you. As the name suggests, it is insurance designed for your whole life. Unlike term insurance, some whole life insurance products can build cash value that you may be able to borrow against to pay for things like home renovations or children’s college education.

What is cash value?

Cash value accumulation within a life insurance policy can occur when a percentage of your premiums are directed to a cash value account. A whole life cash value account can earn a guaranteed minimum interest rate. Life insurance policies with these types of cash value accounts can be a great way for people to build cash value over time. Depending on the policy, certain cash value accounts can also provide much-needed funds in the event of an emergency because the policyholder may be able to access the cash value as a loan, make a partial withdrawal, or, if the account builds up enough money, use the funds to pay their life insurance premiums. Withdrawals or loans may reduce the death benefit and cash value, may affect how long the insurance contract is in effect and may have tax consequences. For loans, interest may be charged.

Additionally, some whole life insurance products pay dividends to policy holders. This is called participating whole life insurance. Such dividends may not be guaranteed. Whole life policies that don’t pay dividends are known as non-participating.

Whole life insurance highlights:

Duration of coverage: Life
Premiums: Typically stay the same for the duration of the insurance
Cost: $$*
Death benefit: Fixed
Cash Value: Yes

Universal life insurance

Similar to whole life insurance, universal life insurance provides a death benefit and the cash value feature that lets you accumulate and earn interest, generally tax free, while the cash remains in the policy. One of the main differences between universal and whole life is that universal life insurance is designed to be flexible as it provides premium flexibility within maximum and minimum premium limits. As long as your policy is valid, some policies may allow you to increase or decrease your coverage to suit your needs at various life stages. For example, you can choose to decrease your death benefit as you pay down your mortgage. Keep in mind, if you want to increase your coverage, you may have to undergo a medical exam, even if you submitted to one when you first bought your universal life insurance.

Universal life insurance is also different from whole life in that you may be able to choose from a minimum guaranteed interest rate or a competitive non-guaranteed interest rate for the cash value portion of your policy. If you choose a non-guaranteed rate, and interest rates go up, your cash value account earns more. If they go down, it earns less. Partly because of this risk, your premiums may be higher than those of a whole life policy. However, you might be able to skip premium payments for a period of time if there's sufficient cash value to cover the premium bill. Alternatively, if interest rates go down and you don’t have enough cash value, you may see your premiums rise.

Universal life insurance highlights

Duration of coverage: Life
Premiums: Flexible, may change throughout the duration of the insurance
Cost: $$$*
Death benefit: Fixed or Increasing
Cash Value: Yes


Learn more about Foresters life insurance products.




1 Proceeds from life insurance paid due to the death of the insured are generally excludable from the beneficiaries’ gross income for income tax purposes. Foresters, their employees and life insurance representatives, do not provide, on Foresters behalf, legal advice. Prospective purchasers should consult their legal advisor.

*Life insurance costs can be dependent on a number of factors such as length of policy, death benefit amount, age, gender, lifestyle, medical history, etc. Costs outlined are in general terms and are in no way representative of actual, individual costs.

The information described above is intended to be general in nature and may not be applicable for all types of life insurance products. Life insurance products are subject to eligibility requirements, underwriting approval, limitations, contract terms and conditions and variations. Refer to the specific contract terms for your specific jurisdiction. 

418395 US 02/20

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