Life Insurance

The basics of life insurance, explained. A guide to buying life insurance, including what to keep in mind and how to find the right policy.

Author: Brian Greenberg CEO of True Blue Life Insurance
Last updated March 17, 2021

What is life insurance and how does it work?

Our primary mission is to make buying life insurance easy. The best way we can do that is by answering questions, starting with the fundamental ones — the “who, what, when, where, and why” (not necessarily in that order), and then moving on to “how.”

From there, we’ll tackle some of the more specific questions that might crop up as you get a little further into the process of shopping for and choosing the coverage you want or need.

If you want to take a shortcut, you can always talk with one of our friendly agents. They’re ready, willing, and able to help you figure out what kind of policy is best for your circumstances, how much coverage you should buy, and which companies are most likely to offer you the best price and/or the easiest route to getting insured. They will gladly answer any questions you might have, and it won’t cost you a penny. And you don’t have to worry about getting pressured into buying something you don’t want or need. That’s not how we do business.

Some people like to gather information on their own, though, especially when it comes to making a decision like this. If you’re one of those people, then by all means read on. Just know that we’re always here to help, if and when you need us.

Who should have a life insurance policy?

Basically, just about everybody who’s married and/or over the age of, say, 25 — and in some instances, even younger people — should have coverage. Seriously. Unless you’re wealthy with plenty of liquid assets on hand, have no family or dependents, have little or no debt, and are the very picture of health, you should have [tooltips keyword=”life insurance” content=”An agreement between an individual (the policy holder) and an insurance company (sometimes called a carrier) in which the company agrees to pay one or more designated beneficiaries a certain amount of money if the insured person dies while the policy is active.”]. Even if you are “all that,” there’s still a good argument to be made in favor of getting coverage. Why? Because your current circumstances are likely to change, and odds are it will cost you more to buy a policy later.

And that leads us to a bigger question:

Why should you buy life insurance?

Different people buy life insurance for different reasons, of course, but there are a handful of basic reasons:

To protect loved ones. The main reason people buy life insurance is to protect those they care about in case something unforeseen happens and they die sooner than might be expected based on their current age, health status, and other factors. Basically, buying a life insurance policy gives your family (or whoever else you designate as the beneficiary) a financial safety net.

Consider what would happen to your family if your income disappeared. Would there be enough to cover the mortgage payment or rent, plus all of the other monthly and annual expenses? What about college tuition for your children? And what if there were substantial medical bills to be paid? How would your family make ends meet?

What if you’re a spouse who isn’t employed outside of the home? Having a life insurance policy in your name is still a smart move. Think about how much it would cost to hire someone to do everything you do for your family. Some estimates place a value of $500,000 or more a year on the services a stay-at-home parent provides. Could your spouse manage to do everything you do for the family and continue to hold down a full-time, paying job?

If you have family members (including parents) or others who depend on you to help support them, then having life insurance will give you peace of mind. You’ll know that they will be taken care of if you’re no longer there to provide for them. (There are certain situations that life insurance policies typically do not cover.)

One thing we’d like to mention is that if you don’t currently have a family but you’re planning on starting one, it’s a good idea to go ahead and get a life insurance policy now instead of waiting. As a general rule of thumb, the younger you are the less it will cost to buy life insurance. That’s because the insurance company can spread the risk over a longer period of time.

Age & GenderTerm (20 yr / $250,000)Whole life ($250,000)
25 – Male$12.35
$107.03
25 – Female$10.89$90.34
35 – Male$13.38$150.95
35 – Female$12.12$130.01
45 – Male$26.31$220.38
45 – Female$21.22
$186.62
55 – Male$64.81$359.52
55 – Female$48.87$299.39
65 – Male$201.35$630.67
65 – Female$142.47$522.96

To pay off debts. If someone has co-signed with you on a loan and you die before the loan is paid off, that person will be liable for the unpaid balance. To avoid putting your co-signer in the position of potentially having to pay your share of the loan, you can take out a policy for the amount of the loan (or at least your share) and name your co-signer as the beneficiary.

To cover final expenses. There’s a specific type of life insurance policy, aptly called a final expense policy, that you can buy to pay for your funeral/burial costs. These policies are usually easy to get, even if you’re an older adult, and having this type of coverage means your loved ones won’t have to worry about suddenly coming up with $8,000 to $10,000 or more — which could be hard enough to do in the best of times, much less at a time of grief.

To use as an investment. For some people, it makes sense to buy life insurance as an investment vehicle. Most of the time we advise our customers to buy term life insurance, which is usually less expensive than a whole life policy, and then invest the difference in some other type of financial instrument. But for people who’ve already put aside as much as they can in retirement accounts and are looking for another tax-deferred investment vehicle, a whole life policy might be the way to go. If you’re in a situation like this, we recommend talking with your financial advisor before buying life insurance.

To avoid incurring estate taxes for your heirs. If this is one of your main reasons for buying life insurance, then a whole life insurance policy can help you accomplish this objective. Here again, we recommend having a discussion with your financial planner.

So why don’t more people buy life insurance? Most — 83%, according to an Insurance Barometer Study by the LIMRA and LIFE Foundation — say it’s too expensive. But it turns out that people oftentimes hugely overestimate the true cost of life insurance, some by nearly three times the actual amount.

When should you buy life insurance?

This is one of the easiest questions to answer: as soon as you can afford to. And let us just say that life insurance probably isn’t as expensive as you think. Plus, as we noted earlier, the longer you wait the more it will probably cost you.

There are two reasons for that:

  1. Insurance companies charge older applicants more than they do younger applicants for the same coverage. That’s because the odds are higher that they will have to pay the death benefit when the policy owner is older.
  2. As you get older your health is likely to change, and not for the better. Insurance companies charge more for applicants whose health status is less than optimal.

What are the different types of life insurance?

Basically, there are two main categories of life insurance: term and whole, also called universal life. There’s final expense insurance too, which we talked about in the “why you should buy life insurance” section above, but that’s a specific type of policy that doesn’t really fit into either of these two categories. Below are brief descriptions of term and whole life insurance to help you understand the main differences between them. You can learn more about each type of insurance at the links provided. Those will take you to the corresponding page on our website that goes into more detail.

Term life insurance

When you buy term life insurance, sometimes also known as “pure” life insurance, you’re buying a policy that gives you coverage for a certain amount of time, such as 10 years, 20 years, or 30 years, as long as you continue to pay the monthly premiums. A term life policy has what is called a “level” death benefit, which means the amount the insurance company will pay to your beneficiaries upon your death is the same whether you die shortly after buying the policy or many years later.

The main advantage to buying a term life insurance policy is the cost. It’s usually less expensive than buying a whole life policy for the same amount of coverage. For many people, a term life policy costs about as much as a monthly phone bill. This makes term life insurance particularly attractive to younger people who might just be starting a family or establishing a new career. It’s also a good option for those who might be a little older and are the head of their household. In a situation like that, the person could buy a policy with a 20-year term to protect the family until he or she reaches retirement age. At the end of the 20-year term the policy would expire, with no need to renew.

Term life insurance is very expensive to renew, so we generally do not recommend doing that. There are better alternatives, such as making sure the term life policy you buy includes a conversion option.

Learn more about term life insurance

Whole life insurance

With a whole life insurance policy, also called a universal life policy, you’re buying life insurance coverage for the remainder of your life — at least in theory. This type of insurance protects your family and is an investment as well. In other words, the money you pay each month to keep the policy active (i.e., your premium) earns a certain rate of return, kind of like a savings account that earns interest.

There are two parts to a universal life insurance policy: the premium and the investment portion. The premiums for a universal life insurance policy increase every year, just like they do for a term life policy. The amount you can earn on the investment portion of a universal life policy depends on what type you buy:

Guaranteed universal life insurance

This type of policy typically guarantees a 4% rate of return on the investment portion of the policy. Using this guaranteed 4% rate of return, the insurance company calculates the minimum monthly premiums required to keep the policy active until you would reach the age of 121.

A guaranteed universal life insurance policy is a good choice when you want to have a permanent policy at the lowest cost. These policies typically give you the option to overfund, which means you can pay more premiums than required so you can build more cash value at a 4% rate of return.

This is the type of policy type we recommend for people who want whole life coverage because it has the best value for a permanent policy.

Indexed universal life insurance

This is also a permanent policy, but unlike a guaranteed universal life insurance policy that pays a flat rate of return, an indexed universal life policy is linked to a stock index, such as the S&P 500. It offers cash savings within the policy and the opportunity to follow market trends.

Part of the premium for this type of policy is used to invest in the chosen index. So, the policy builds value based on that index.

Most of the time, this type of policy is sold with a guarantee that it will not lose money. The downside is that it also is capped, which means there’s a limit on how much you can gain by having a policy like this.

You can borrow money from the investment portion of an indexed universal life insurance policy, but you must repay the loan. Otherwise, the death benefit will decrease by the amount that has been borrowed but not repaid.

These policies can be a good choice for people who have set aside as much as they can in their retirement accounts and want another way to invest while deferring taxes. But, these policies can be complicated. We believe they are oversold to consumers, and we always recommend seeking the advice of a financial advisor before buying an indexed universal life insurance policy.

Variable universal life insurance

This type of universal life insurance has the same features as basic universal life insurance, but with an extra “variable” component. That component has a cash value that’s invested in small sub-accounts, which act similar to a mutual fund. The cash value can increase or decrease, depending on the kind of investments made. It’s important to note that the income in this account can be lost entirely.

As with indexed universal life insurance, people who might benefit from this type of policy are those who have already maxed out the contributions to their retirement accounts but want to invest in a tax-deferred vehicle. An agent who sells variable universal life insurance policies must be licensed to sell stocks and bonds.

Learn more about whole life insurance

Where and how can you buy life insurance?

Online. Now that buying life insurance has become so much easier, most people buy it online unless they get it through their employer.

Buying life insurance online is typically a very simple process. You can get quotes from different companies to see which one offers the best plan for your needs, and at the best price. Once you’ve zeroed in on a specific insurer and plan, you will probably have the option of completing at least most of your application online. Depending on your circumstances and the company you choose, you might need to have a brief phone conversation with an agent.

After you’ve submitted your application, you should receive a response from the insurer very promptly. Some insurance companies will give you an approval decision within minutes. In some cases, the company might request more information (like medical records) to process your application.

Note that you can get help from one of our independent agents at any point in the process of buying life insurance online.

By phone. If you aren’t comfortable buying life insurance online, you can buy a policy by phone. If you already know what company you want to buy your policy from, you can contact their customer service department for help getting your policy.

If you don’t have a specific company in mind, then talking with an independent agent, like one of our knowledgeable True Blue agents, is a great place to start. We work with dozens of different insurers, and our agents know which ones will offer the best plans and prices for your unique situation.

By mail. Similar to buying a policy by phone, if you know which insurance company you want to use you can ask to have an application mailed to you, which you can then fill out and return. Or, you can work with an independent agent to find a company and plan you like, and then request an application.

You might be tempted to buy an insurance policy in response to an offer you receive in the mail. Before you fill out that form, consider that in most cases these offers are for a one-size-fits-all type of policy, with no opportunity to tailor the coverage to your personal needs. Why settle for something like that when you have so many other options?

At work. Some employers still offer group life insurance as part of their benefit package. Usually, this type of coverage is very inexpensive or even free, but it may not provide as much protection as you would like your family to have.

Even if you do have life insurance through your job, we recommend getting a policy of your own. Why? Because if you leave your job, you’ll more than likely lose that coverage. If you buy your own policy, though, it stays with you no matter where your career takes you.

Through a financial advisor. If you work with a trusted financial planner or other professional in this capacity, he or she can help you buy life insurance. Be aware, though, that your financial advisor may only be able to sell you a limited selection of plans because of where he or she is licensed. True Blue agents are licensed in all 50 states.

A few words about insurance agents

There are two types of agents: captive and independent.

Captive agents work for a single insurance company and can only offer you the policies their company sells. You might only get one quote, which you can take or leave.

Independent agents, on the other hand, are like our True Blue agents — they represent multiple insurers and have the flexibility to shop around and find the best coverage for your needs. An independent agent can address any concerns you might have and will work with the insurance company on your behalf to keep the application process moving along smoothly.

How do you choose the right policy?

This is usually the hardest part of buying life insurance — for most people, anyway. But we promise it doesn’t have to be complicated.

This is where talking with an independent agent can make the biggest difference. For one thing, you want to make sure you’re taking all of the important considerations into account. For another, an agent can help you understand the nitty-gritty details about coverage — things like riders and living benefits and conversion options — and how all of the pieces fit together.

Basically, when trying to determine which type of life insurance and how much coverage to buy, you want to think about the following:

  • What is your health status? This is particularly important if you’re going to decide between a medically underwritten policy or no medical exam life insurance. As a general rule of thumb, we advise our customers who are in relatively good health to apply for a policy that’s fully underwritten, unless they’re in a hurry to get coverage or they just really want to skip the exam. A no medical exam policy typically costs more. Incidentally, if you have a chronic health condition or your medical history includes one or more serious illnesses, don’t think that a no medical exam policy is the better option. You’ll still have to answer health questions, and you should always answer them truthfully. Otherwise, you risk having the insurance company refuse to pay out the death benefit to your beneficiaries.

    A better approach, if you have health concerns, is to work with an independent agent who knows which insurance companies will offer you the best options. If you apply and get denied, that could make it harder and more expensive to get coverage elsewhere. For this reason, it pays to work with an agent who’s familiar with many insurers.

  • What are your current and future needs? This goes back to the reason you’re buying life insurance. If you want a policy to protect your family, is that only your spouse, or do you have dependents (this could include parents)? If not now, will you have dependents later on? If you do have children, how many, and how old are they? Do you own a business that depends on you to continue operating? How soon do you plan to retire? As noted previously, buying life insurance becomes more costly as you get older. Plan ahead now so you won’t shortchange yourself later.
  • What is your financial situation? If you’re young and just starting out, a term life insurance policy might meet your objectives and fit best within your budget. However, if you’re closer to retirement age, your children are grown and gone from home, and you have other assets on hand to cover your debts and final expenses, that’s an entirely different situation that calls for a different type of life insurance policy. You’ll also want to consider your financial situation when deciding how much coverage to buy. Would your family have to make a drastic change in their lifestyle to make ends meet on the amount of the death benefit?
  • What are your long-term goals? Do you want to use your health insurance policy to accumulate wealth, or do you have other methods of providing for your retirement?

How much life insurance should you buy?

You’ll want to consider some of the same factors we mentioned above when you decide how much coverage to buy, also referred to as the face value of the policy. A quick way to gauge the amount of coverage you should get is to use our online insurance calculator.

Remember, the key to figuring out how much to buy is to estimate how much your family will need if you die. You’ll want to evaluate how much they’ll need to meet immediate obligations as well as what it will take to sustain the household into the future.

Here’s a breakdown of some of the items you’ll want to include when calculating your estimate:

  • Your debt. Other than possibly a mortgage, how much debt do you have? Would your spouse be able to pay that off?
  • Your expenses. If you live by a budget, you most likely already have an idea of how much you spend each month. If your family was to invest the death benefit from your policy, could they cover their monthly expenses with the annual income that investment would provide?
  • Your savings and other assets. You might need less life insurance if you have a decent amount set aside in savings, investments, and similar assets, but be sure to factor in what you’ll need during retirement, as well as college tuition for your children and other future financial needs.
  • Your spouse’s income. Assuming your spouse would continue to work if you died, you’ll want to take his or her annual income into account, as well as how much longer he or she would expect to work.
  • Inflation. You really don’t want to forget to plug this into your calculations because the cost of living just keeps going up.

How to buy life insurance

We’ve pretty much already laid this out in the sections above, but here’s a quick list of the steps. An insurance agent can help you with any or all of these.

Your coverage won’t begin until you’ve paid your first premium. You also have a window of time after buying a life insurance policy in which you can change your mind.

Should you buy more than one policy?

You might not have thought about this, but many people buy multiple life insurance policies. Here are some of the reasons you might want to consider doing this:

  • To diversify your insurance investments. If you want to make sure you’re covered no matter what happens with a specific insurance company, you could buy policies from more than one insurer. Another strategy if you’re relatively young and healthy is to buy two policies with different terms — one would be for a short-term period and the other would be for a longer term or a permanent policy. The short-term policy would protect your children until they’re grown, and the other would provide cash for your legacy.
  • To extend your current coverage. If you’re nearing the end of the term on an existing life insurance policy, you might want to start another one so there’s some overlap between the two. This can make the process of “replacing” an existing policy go more smoothly and reduce paperwork. Your new insurance company won’t have to contact your current insurance company to cancel the old policy, which can be a cumbersome process. We’ve found that it’s usually easier for customers to get their new policy and then cancel the old one themselves.
  • To “stack” policies for the coverage you want. If you’re looking for a specific amount of coverage but can’t get it through one insurer, then “stacking” policies — buying two or more at roughly the same time from different insurers — might be a good strategy for you. For example, if you wanted a total of $90,000 in coverage, you could buy two policies in the amount of $25,000 and a third in the amount of $40,000, all from different companies. This can be especially helpful if you are limited to buying guaranteed acceptance policies, which have lower coverage limits.Stacking policies can be useful for:
    – People who divorce, as it can guarantee that child support payments
    would continue if the person responsible for making them were to die
    – Business owners who want to secure a small business loan, fund
    buy-sell agreements, or protect their interests in the company they own
    – Those who want to make sure plenty of money is available to cover
    their final expenses
  • To “ladder” your term life policies. This strategy is similar to stacking policies, only you buy multiple term life policies with different coverage amounts and different terms. You might want to think about doing this if you have more than one child. The policy with the largest face value would have the shortest term, and each additional policy would have a smaller face value with a longer term, to cover each of your children until they are adults.

There’s a limit on how much total coverage you can buy, and that limit is based on your financial situation. Insurance companies will ask on your application if you own any other life insurance policies.

As with any decision you are considering making about your life insurance coverage, one of our experienced True Blue life insurance agents can help you determine whether buying more than one policy is in your best interest.

A quick explanation of policy classes and table ratings

How much your premiums will be depends on how the insurance company’s underwriters classify you as a potential risk. For instance, if you are young, your health is good, and you don’t smoke or regularly engage in risky behavior that could drastically shorten your life expectancy, then your premiums will be relatively low.

Each insurer has its own system and criteria for classifying applicants. Typically, though, most insurers offer six classifications:

  • Preferred plus
  • Preferred
  • Standard plus
  • Standard
  • Preferred smoker
  • Standard smoker

Only about 5% of the population qualifies for the preferred plus classification. This is reserved for people who basically have a spotless health history (including their family health history) and a clean driving record (no moving violations, accidents, DWIs, or license suspensions in the last 3–5 years).

Preferred usually is reserved for people who are in very good health overall but maybe have a health condition such as hypertension or high cholesterol that is under control through medication. This category might also be used for people with jobs or hobbies that place them at higher risk for an accident-related death.

Standard plus typically is used to classify people whose health is above average, but they might have some minor health issues or some family history of disease.

Standard is the most common classification and encompasses those who are in average health. They probably take more than one prescription medication and have a family history of heart disease, cancer or a similarly serious health condition.

The preferred smokers classification is for people who would qualify for the preferred classification except they smoke on occasion or may have just quit smoking.

Standard smokers, as you might have guessed, are people who are in average health and who smoke regularly or frequently.

So what happens if your health is below average? Maybe you have several chronic conditions. What then?

That’s where the table ratings come into play. The insurance company’s underwriters will assign a rating based on your health risk, such as 1, 2, 3 or A, B, C. The company will then charge you the “standard” rate plus an extra percentage based on your rating. For example, someone with a rating of 1 or A would be charged an additional 25%, whereas someone with a rating of 2 or B would pay an extra 50% and those with a rating of 3 or C would pay 75% more.

The good news is that an insurance company can’t decrease your classification if you buy a policy and then later develop an illness, such as cancer, or you gain a lot of weight.

And there’s other good news. Although it doesn’t happen very often, it is possible to improve your classification. You can stop smoking, get any chronic conditions you may have under control, improve your driving record, and/or find a job or hobby that is less risky. Then, after a certain amount of time has passed (usually specified in your policy), you can ask the insurance company to review your status and see if your classification can be changed.

A good independent insurance agent will know which companies are most likely to offer some leeway as far as classifications and ratings are concerned. If you’ve received a quote for coverage and you want to see if you can get a better price, an agent can shop on your behalf.

Also, if you apply for coverage and are turned down for health reasons, an agent can look for another insurer who might be willing to offer you a policy. Time can also help. If you recently had a serious health issue, such as a heart attack, you might be denied coverage now — but you can apply again later when your condition has stabilized.

Don’t forget that there’s always guaranteed acceptance life insurance. It may be more expensive than you would like, and you might not be able to get as much coverage as you want, but at least you’ll have some protection.

Curious about what companies you might qualify for?

It’s important to feel good about the insurance company you choose to do business with, which is why you should do some research — even if that’s as simple as talking with an independent agent to get some unbiased information.

Still, you can go to the effort of getting quotes and narrowing down your choices, eventually choosing an insurer, only to find that you don’t qualify for coverage through that company.

To save yourself time and trouble, take our health quiz. That way, you can quickly whittle down the possibilities to just those companies that are likely to offer you coverage. You’ll still need to fill out an application, and you’ll probably need to take a medical exam so the underwriters can determine your classification, but our online health quiz is a great starting point.

How to collect insurance benefits

Losing a loved one can lead to a stressful, emotional time when there are many details that need attention. The steps we’ve provided here can help you through the process of collecting the benefits of a life insurance policy when the policy holder has died.

  1. Before you can file a claim, you’ll need to have a contact at the insurance company. The insurance policy should include a phone number for you to call. If you don’t have the policy, you can find a phone number online for the insurance company’s customer service or claims department. You’ll also need a death certificate. The process for getting a death certificate varies by state, but the funeral home can probably help you with this. It usually takes between one and two weeks to get a death certificate but can take as long as six. It’s a good idea to request several copies. Other information you may need:
    – The deceased person’s Social Security number
    – The policy number
    – Proof of beneficiary status for the person who’s receiving the benefits
    (Sometimes the insurer will require the beneficiary’s Social Security
    number and a tax return.)
  2. File a claim with the insurance company. Your contact at the company will take you through the necessary steps.
  3. Decide how to take the payout. Not all insurers offer a choice. The default option is usually to take a lump sum, which typically takes a couple of weeks. In some cases, however, the beneficiary can choose to receive the policy’s principal and interest on a set schedule of payments, or as guaranteed income for life, or as interest-only payments, with the principal to be paid to a second beneficiary when the first beneficiary dies. If there’s a choice in how to receive the payout, then we recommend talking with a tax advisor and/or a financial planner. We should mention here that with many policies there’s a two-year period after the policy is purchased, called a contestability period, in which the insurance company might not pay the full death benefit. The company might choose to investigate the death to determine if fraud has occurred or if the contract has been violated. Also, some policies are designed so that only a portion of the death benefit is paid out during the first two years, or in some instances only the premiums paid during those two years are returned.
  4. Reasons a claim might be delayed or denied. As noted above, if the death occurs during the contestability period, the insurance company may open an investigation. The same is true if the death was a homicide. A claim might be outright denied if the insured person died as a result of suicide within the contestability period, if he or she engaged in a risky hobby not listed on the application, or if the death was the result of illegal activity, such as drunk driving. There are many other reasons an insurer might deny a claim, so read the fine print on the policy. If you run into problems with an insurance company delaying or denying a payout on a death benefit, it’s best to seek legal help.
  5. What if the beneficiary has died? If there are other primary co-beneficiaries, the death benefit will be paid to them. If not, then the benefit will go to a secondary or contingent beneficiary, if there is one (or multiple). If all potential beneficiaries have died, then the death benefit becomes part of the policy holder’s estate and may be subject to probate, in which case the court will decide what happens.

In summary

We know that this is a lot of information. We’ve tried to make it as easy to understand as possible because we want you to be able to make an informed decision when buying your life insurance policy.

Here are the key takeaways:
  • Unless you’re still quite young, are in exceptionally good health, have no dependents and no debt, don’t plan on starting a family, don’t own a business, and have enough money set aside to pay for your final expenses, you really should have life insurance to protect the people you care about.
  • There are two main types of life insurance — term and whole life — as well as final expense.
  • Generally speaking, the younger you are when you buy life insurance, the less expensive it will be. It’s a good idea to lock in a lower rate while you’re young and relatively healthy.
  • You can buy life insurance online, by phone, by mail, through an agent or financial planner, or (possibly) through your employer.
  • The basic steps to getting a life insurance policy are to get a quote, decide what kind of coverage and how much you want, choose a company, and complete the application. You may also have to take a physical exam.
  • An independent insurance agent, like one of our friendly True Blue agents, can help you understand all of the ins and outs of life insurance and assist you in getting the right policy for your needs, at the best possible price.

    If you’d like more information, or if you want some help getting started, call us. We’re always happy to help!

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