For people new to life insurance, the information surrounding buying a life insurance policy can all be very confusing.  Most people must place a lot of trust in their life insurance agent, and hope that the agent has their best interests at heart.  Fortunately, most of the agents out there do in fact have their clients’ best interest in mind when they make a recommendation to purchase a particular life insurance policy.  Unfortunately, if an agent does not have the right intentions, most people will not know about it until it is too late.

For the protection of everyone purchasing a life insurance contract, at Life Ant, we always recommend that our clients educate themselves as thoroughly as they can before making a purchasing decision.  Understanding the fundamentals of life insurance, including what the major types of life insurance are, and how they each work in different ways to accomplish the same goal of providing protection to the insured person’s beneficiaries.

Life Insurance Types Explained

Types of Life Insurance – Overview

There are four major types of life insurance policies.  These life insurance types are Whole Life Insurance, Term Life Insurance, Universal Life Insurance, and Variable Universal Life Insurance.  Within each of these classes of life insurance policy types, there are even further variations that exist, but the vast majority of all policies are one of these four.

Some policies will make life insurance agent’s more money than others.  For instance, whole life will often make them the largest commission for any given death benefit, and term life insurance will usually make them the smallest commission.  This means that an agent does not have a very big incentive to sell a policy that is the most beneficial to the vast majority of people.  Arguments can be made for the benefits of each type, but each situation is unique and calls for a careful understanding of the costs and benefits involved.

For an in-depth discussion regarding the pros and cons of “purchasing term life insurance and investing the difference”, see our article on the subject here.

Below is a description of each type of life insurance policy, along with some benefits and drawbacks of each kind.

Term Life Insurance Explained

Term life insurance is by far the least expensive type of life insurance policy to pay on a yearly basis.  This makes it very attractive to people, but if you outlive the length of the term policy you do not receive any death benefit.  If the insured person dies will the coverage is “in force”, which is during the covered length of the term, the beneficiaries will receive a full death benefit.

Term life insurance has no cash value and is of little use to anyone as an investment.  A life insurance company statistically expects it’s policy owners to outlive any term coverage.

Term life insurance lasts exactly as its name implies, for a specified length of time, or in other words a specified or “term”.  Typically policies will last 10, 15, 20, or 30 years, but there are also other increments that some companies may sell.  Some companies also sell term life insurance products which will last until a certain age, such as term to age 90 (this may be referred to as T-90 in life insurance parlance).   Some policies may have a return of all or a portion of premiums paid if you outlive the T-90, but many also do not.

Term life insurance normally has a level premium, meaning the amount that must be paid is the same each year.  Term life insurance, which lasts until a certain age, usually will rise in price a little bit each year, eventually becoming extremely expensive if the person lives to be near the maximum age. Typically an owner has the option to pay yearly, semi-annually, quarterly, and monthly.  It can sometimes cost more to make monthly payments than less frequent payment modes.

At a certain point within the life of the policy, a term life insurance may be convertible to a whole life insurance policy.  This is known as a “term conversion“.  The value of the term conversion is the fact that no further underwriting is needed in order to convert the policy to a whole life policy.  This means that if an insured person has health problems during the course of the term policy coverage they will not be left without coverage after the term ends.  They can simply convert the policy to a permanent form of life insurance.  Each policy may have a different point at which it is eligible for a term conversion.

It is important to understand the specific rules and differences of each product before you purchase the insurance.  Each company may have a difference between the same product, and each company may sell multiple product types that may appear similar, but they may have nuances that may make a big difference to the owner such as the return of premium clause.

Whole Life Insurance Explained

Whole life insurance is a type of life insurance that is meant to be permanent and last for an insured person’s “whole life”.  Whole life insurance has a level premium structure (the premiums due are the same each year) and will build cash value over time.  Whole life insurance is also eligible to receive dividend payments from the life insurance company.

Whole life insurance policies guarantee that the cash value will build at least at a certain rate if all payments are made on time, but the dividend payment will increase the rate at which value can build.  The amount paid by the dividend payment is dependent upon the performance of the company over the previous year, and the rate paid is multiplied by the existing cash value of the policy.

Many policies will have a dividend payment which becomes high enough to pay the entire premium due after a certain point.  The cash value will eventually grow enough so a policy owner has a positive return on the amount of money they put into the policy.  This also makes whole life insurance a form of investment.

Whole life insurance policies also allow for loans to be taken against the cash value of the policy.  These loans can be taken for any reason and can be paid back upon the discretion of the owner of the policy.

The big advantage of whole life is that the insured person can never outlive it.  Beneficiaries are always protected for the long term.  For this reason (and because the death benefits are tax-free) whole life insurance is often used for estate planning, and to fund generational trusts.

Universal Life Insurance Explained

Universal life insurance is a permanent form of life insurance.  The difference between whole life insurance and universal life insurance is that universal life insurance has a flexible premium structure.

A universal life insurance policy has a cash-value account, the insurance charges are pulled from the cash value account each month.  Any amount paid into the policy in excess of the cost of insurance is added to the cash value.  The cash value then grows at a rate determined by insurance company performance and prevailing interest rates, with a guaranteed minimum of 2% annual growth.

The cost of insurance rises over time with a universal life insurance policy.  This means that a policy is of greatest benefit to an owner when it is well funded in the early policy years when insurance costs are lowest.  As the costs rise, the growth in cash value will hypothetically more than make up for the rising charges.

Universal life insurance can not legally be sold as an investment.  A universal life insurance policy can be surrendered for its cash value, or loans and withdrawals can be taken as well.  Surrender charges may apply for any withdrawals or full surrenders.

Variable Universal Life Insurance Explained

Variable universal life insurance is similar to universal life insurance in that premium payments are flexible and the cost of insurance rises over time.  The big difference between the two kinds of policies though is that variable universal life insurance has a cash value account that does not pay a fixed or guaranteed rate of return.

The cash value of a variable universal life insurance policy is invested in variable “sub-accounts” within the life insurance policy.  These sub-accounts are essentially mutual funds, which represent investments in different asset classes.  The policy owner can choose which sub-accounts the cash value is invested in.  The growth (or loss) of the cash value is dependent upon the market performance of the variable accounts.

The benefit of variable universal life insurance over universal life insurance is that historically speaking, the stock market outperforms the guaranteed accounts of universal life.  The risk of a variable universal life insurance policy is that the market will decline, and the owner will end up with a poorly performing policy.

Variable universal life insurance is permanent, and the cost of insurance charges will rise over time.  Variable universal life insurance does allow for loans or withdrawals, and the policy can be surrendered for its cash value at any time.  Surrender charges may apply for any surrenders or withdrawals.

Term vs. Whole vs. Universal vs. Variable Universal Life insurance

To recap, here is an overview of the different types of life insurance and their characteristics:

FeatureTerm Life InsuranceWhole Life InsuranceUniversal Life InsuranceVariable Universal Life Insurance
You can choose policy length
Has death benefits
Has living benefits
Cash value guaranteed
Builds cash value
Flexible premium payments
Flexible death benefit amount
Cash value linked to investments
Most affordable kind of life insurance

Life Insurance Types – Choosing the Right Policy

No matter which type of life insurance you choose, it is very important to understand the specific rules and terms of each type of insurance and each specific policy.  Different types of policies can be appropriate for different people depending upon their age, needs, and appetite for risk.  Each type of policy carries a different charge, and it is important to understand how long the coverage is needed, how long each policy will be in place, and how much it will cost in the long run.


  1. An impressive writeup you have. Really inciting.

    However, where would categorize an endowment and pure endowment policies?

    Thank you

    1. Andrew @ LifeAnt

      Hi Olakunle,
      Endowment policies would be categorized as a hybrid between a term and a whole life policy. They aren’t as popular in the US as in some other places, but it is an option to provide for some money for your children once they reach adulthood, whether that’s to save for college expenses or to get them started in a house or anything else. It’s a set term period but it does grow cash value, so it’s basically a combination of term and whole life.

  2. I’m 51 this year..i have no kids of my own and I’m not married, although I soon will get married and she has 3 kids that I’d like for them and her to be taken care of..I am the one whom they depend on financially I’ve been healthy my whole health issues ..physically I’m in pretty good shape and I’m looking for life insurance ..I’m just not sure how to go about it, and im not a very trusting person when it comes to dealing with agents and getting the most for my money..I’d like a someone to help me who knows about the different policies and also has a policy and understands different situations in which my money is best used for the what I’m trying to accomplish..any suggestions…

    1. We are a low-pressure service! If you want to compare policies and choose one yourself, please feel free to contact us directly or fill in our quote form!

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