Life Insurance Buyer's Guide

This guide can help you get the most for your money when you shop for life insurance. It can help you answer questions about

  1. Buying Life Insurance
  2. Deciding How Much You Need
  3. Finding a Low Cost Policy
  4. Things to Remember

Buying Life Insurance

When you buy life insurance, you want coverage that fits your needs and doesn't cost too much.

First, decide how much you need - and for how long - and what you can afford to pay.

Next, find out what kinds of policies are available to meet your needs and pick the one that best suits you.

Then, find out what different companies charge for that kind of policy - for the amount of insurance you want. You can find important cost differences between the life insurance policies by using cost comparison indexes as described in this guide.

It makes a good sense to ask an insurance agent or company to help you. An agent can be particularly useful in reviewing your insurance needs and in giving you information about the kinds of policies that are available. If one kind doesn't seem to fit your needs, ask about others.

This guide provides only basic information. You can get more facts about life insurance from a life insurance agent or company or at your public library.

What about your present policy? Think twice before dropping a life insurance policy you already have to buy a new one.

  • It can be costly because much of what you paid in the early years of the policy you now have was used for the company's expense of selling and issuing the policy. The expense will be incurred again for a new policy.
  • If you are older or your health has changed, premium for the new policy will often be higher.
  • You may have valuable rights and benefits in your present policy that are not in the new one.
  • You might be able to change your present policy or even add to it to get the coverage or benefits you now want.

Check with the agent or company that issued your present policy - get both sides of the story. In any case, don't give up your present policy until you are covered by a new one.

How Much Do You Need?

To decide how much life insurance you need, figure out what your dependents would have if you were to die now, and what they would actually need. Your policy should come as close to making up the difference as you can afford.

In figuring what you have, count your present insurance - including any group insurance where you work, social security or veteran's insurance. Add other assets you have - savings, investments, real estate, and personal property.

In figuring out what you have, think of income for your dependents - for family living expenses, educational costs and any other future needs. Think also for cash needs - for the expense of a final illness and for paying taxes, mortgages or other debts.

What Is The Right Kind?

All life insurance policies agree to pay an amount of money when you die. But all policies are not the same. Some provide permanent coverage and others temporary coverage. Some build up easy cash values and others do not. Some policies combine different kinds of insurance, and others let you change from one kind of insurance to another. Your choice should be based on your needs and what you can afford.

A wide variety of plans is being offered today. Here is a brief description of two kinds, term and whole life - and some combinations and variations. You can get detailed information from a life insurance agent or company.

Term Insurance covers you for a term of one or more years. It pays a death benefit only if you die in that term. Term insurance generally provides the largest immediate death protection for your premium dollar.

Most term insurance policies are renewable for one or more additional terms, even if your health has changed. Each time you renew the policy for a new term, premiums will be higher. Check the premiums at older ages and how long the policy can be continued.

Many term insurance policies can be traded before the end of a conversion period for a whole life policy - even if you are not in a good health. Premiums for the new policy will be higher than you have been paying for the term insurance.

Whole Life Insurance covers you for as long as you live. The most common type is called straight life or ordinary life insurance -- you pay the same premiums for as long as you live. These premiums can be several times higher than you would pay at first for the same amount of term insurance. But they are smaller than the premiums you would eventually pay if you keep renewing a term policy until your later years.

Some whole life insurance policies let you pay premiums for a shorter period such as 20 years, or until age 65. Premiums for those policies are higher than for ordinary life insurance since the premium payments are squeezed into a shorter period.

Whole life policies develop cash values. If you stop paying premiums, you can take cash - or you can use the cash value to buy continuing insurance protection for a limited or a reduced amount. (Some term policies that provide coverage for a long period also have cash values.)

You may borrow against the cash value by taking a policy loan. Any loan and interest on the loan that you do not pay back will be deducted from your benefits if you die, or from the cash value if you stop paying premiums.

Combinations and Variations. You can combine different kinds of insurance. For example, you can buy whole life insurance for lifetime coverage and add term insurance for the period of your greatest insurance needs. Usually the term insurance is on your life - but it can also be bought for your spouse or children.

Endowment insurance policies pay a sum or income to you if you live to a certain age. If you die before them, the death benefit is paid to the person you named as beneficiary.

Other policies may have special features which allow flexibility as to premiums and coverage. Some let you choose the death benefit you want and the premium amount you can pay. The kind of insurance and coverage period is determined by these choices.

One kind of flexible premium policy, often called universal life, lets you vary your premium payments every year, and even skip a payment if you wish. The premium you pay (less expense charges) goes into a policy account that earns interest, and charges for the insurance are deducted from the account. Here, insurance continues as long as there is enough money in the account to pay the insurance charges.

Variable life is a special kind of insurance where the death benefits and cash values depend upon investment performance of one or more separate accounts. Be sure to get the prospectus provided by the company when buying this kind of policy. The method of cost comparison outlined in this Guide does not apply to policies of this kind.

Finding a Low Cost Policy

After you have decided which kind of life insurance is best for you, compare similar policies from different companies to find which one is likely to give you the best value for your money. A simple comparison of the premiums is not enough. There are other things to consider. For example:

  • Do premiums or benefits vary from year to year?
  • How much cash value builds up under the policy?
  • What part of the premiums or benefits is not guaranteed?
  • What is the effect of interest on money paid and received at different times on the policy?

Cost comparison Index numbers, which you get from life insurance agents or companies, take these sorts of items into account and can point the way to better buys.

Cost Comparison Indexes. There are two types of cost comparison index numbers. Both assume you will live and pay premiums for the next 10 or 20 years.

  1. The Surrender Cost Comparison Index helps you compare costs over a 10 or 20 year period assuming you give up (surrender) the policy and take its cash value at the end of the period. It is useful if you consider the level of cash values to be of special importance to you.
  2. The Net Payment Cost Comparison Index, helps you compare costs over 10 or 20 year period assuming you will continue to pay premiums on your policy and do not make its cash value. It is useful if your main concern is the benefits that are to be paid at your death.

The two index numbers are the same for a policy without cash values.

Guaranteed and Illustrated Figures. Many policies provide benefits on a more favorable basis than the minimum guaranteed basis for the policy. They may do this by paying dividends, or by charging less than maximum premium specified. Or they may do this in other ways, such as providing higher cash values or death benefits than the minimums guaranteed in the policy. In these cases the index numbers are shown on both a guaranteed and currently illustrated basis. The currently illustrated basis reflects the company's current scale of dividends, premiums or benefits. These scales can be changed after the policy is issued, so that the actual dividends, premiums or benefits over the years can be higher or lower than those assured in the indexes on the currently illustrated basis.

Some policies are sold only on a guaranteed or fixed cost basis. These policies do not pay dividends; the premiums and benefits are fixed at the time you buy the policy and will not change.

Using Cost Comparison Indexes. The most important thing to remember is that a policy with smaller index numbers is generally better buy than a similar policy with large index numbers.

Compare index numbers only for similar policies - those which provide essentially the same benefits, with premiums payable for the same length of time. Make sure they are for your age, and for the kind of policy amount you intend to buy. Remember that no one company offers the lowest cost at all ages for all kinds and amounts of insurance.

Small differences in index numbers should be disregarded, particularly where there are dividends or non- guaranteed premiums or benefits. Also, small differences could easily be offset by other policy features, or differences in the quality of service from the agent or company. When you find small differences in the indexes, your choice should be based on something other than cost.

Finally, keep in mind that index numbers cannot tell you the whole story. You should also consider:

  • The pattern of policy benefits. Some policies have low cash values in the early years that build rapidly later on. Other policies have a more level cash value build-up. A year-by-year display of values and benefits can be very helpful. (The agent or company will give you a Policy Summary that will show benefits and premiums for selected years.)
  • Any special features that may be particularly suited to your needs.
  • The methods by which non-guaranteed values are calculated. For example, interest rates are an important factor in determining policy dividends. In some companies dividends reflect the average interest earnings on all policies whenever issued. In others, the dividends for policies issued in a recent year, or a group of years, reflect the interest earnings on those policies; in this case, dividends are likely to change more rapidly when interest rates change.

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