Sunday, March 16, 2008

Which Life Insurance Is Best?

LIFE INSURANCE COMES IN three flavors. Term insurance offers plain-vanilla protection at a low cost. Then there's whole life, which has a savings component. A third type, the return of premium, is essentially a hybrid of the first two.

Here at, we generally recommend term life, as its low premiums allow consumers to get maximum coverage at little cost. (They can then invest on their own the savings they'll reap by forgoing pricier options.)

But don't just take our word for it. Before you head to an insurance broker's office, you should be familiar with the pros and cons of each policy type. Insurance agents are notorious for their heavy-handed sales tactics. Arming yourself with some knowledge ahead of time is the best way to make sure you wind up with the policy that's right for you.

Best Life Insurance Term

The Pros:
It's cheap. Term life is the most affordable variety of life insurance. Its reasonable rates allow people to buy policies with larger face values than they could otherwise afford. For example, a 45-year-old male nonsmoker could pick up a million-dollar, 30-year term policy for $2,600 a year, says Brian Place, principal owner of, a Web site that sells life insurance. A whole life policy, also known as permanent insurance, will cost 2.5 to 4 times as much, he says.

It covers a temporary need. Remember, life insurance is meant to provide for your dependents. Later in life — after the kids are in college and you and your spouse have socked away a generous retirement stash — you might not have any dependents. So while you might buy a policy when your first child is born (and you might increase it as you have more children), you may only need life insurance for, say, 30 years.

The Cons:
It expires. There's a dark side to the expiration date of term insurance. If you find that at the end of that term you still need life insurance — maybe your company's pension plan just imploded, leaving your spouse potentially ill-equipped for life without you — you're starting from scratch. The older you are, the tougher the term market is going to be to you: If you're not in good health, you might not be eligible for coverage at all.

If you outlive your policy — or cancel it at any time — you get nothing back. Assuming things go the way you — and the insurance company — plan, you'll still be alive and well when your term insurance policy comes to an end. That means you will have paid thousands of dollars (most likely tens of thousands) for a policy you didn't use. You won't get any refunds for your accomplishment, which makes some folks feel like they've wasted their money.

But think of it this way: If you invested on your own the savings you enjoyed over the years by going with cheaper term insurance rather than whole life, you almost surely came out significantly ahead.