Term Life Insurance Definition

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What Is Term Life Insurance?

Term life insurance, also known as pure life insurance, is a type of life insurance that guarantees payment of a stated death benefit if the covered person dies during a specified term. Once the term expires, the policyholder can either renew it for another term, convert the policy to permanent coverage, or allow the policy to terminate.

Key Takeaways

  • Term life insurance guarantees payment of a stated death benefit to the insured’s beneficiaries if the insured person dies during a specified term.
  • These policies have no value other than the guaranteed death benefit and feature no savings component as found in a whole life insurance product. 
  • Term life premiums are based on a person’s age, health, and life expectancy.

How Term Life Insurance Works

When you buy a term life insurance policy, the insurance company determines the premiums based on the value of the policy (the payout amount) as well as your age, gender, and health. In some cases, a medical exam may be required. The insurance company may also inquire about your driving record, current medications, smoking status, occupation, hobbies, and family history.

If you die during the term of the policy, the insurer will pay the face value of the policy to your beneficiaries. This cash benefit—which is, in most cases, not taxable—may be used by beneficiaries to settle your healthcare and funeral costs, consumer debt, or mortgage debt among other things. However, if the policy expires before your death, there is no payout. You may be able to renew a term policy at its expiration, but the premiums will be recalculated for your age at the time of renewal. Term life policies have no value other than the guaranteed death benefit. There is no savings component as found in a whole life insurance product.

Term Life Insurance Explained

Because it offers a benefit for a restricted time and provides only a death benefit, term life is usually the least costly life insurance available. A healthy 35-year-old non-smoker can typically obtain a 20-year level-premium policy with a $250,000 face value for $20 to $30 per month. Purchasing a whole life equivalent would have significantly higher premiums, possibly $200 to $300 per month. Because most term life insurance policies expire before paying a death benefit, the overall risk to the insurer is lower than that of a permanent life policy. The reduced risk allows insurers to pass cost savings to the customers in the form of lowering premiums.

When you consider the amount of coverage you can get for your premium dollars, term life insurance tends to be the least expensive option for life insurance.

Interest rates, the financials of the insurance company, and state regulations can also affect premiums. In general, companies often offer better rates at “breakpoint” coverage levels of $100,000, $250,000, $500,000, and $1,000,000.

Example of Term Life Insurance

Thirty-year-old George wants to protect his family in the unlikely event of his early death. He buys a $500,000 10-year term life insurance policy with a premium of $50 per month. If George dies within the 10-year term, the policy will pay George’s beneficiary $500,000. If he dies after he turns 40, when the policy has expired, his beneficiary will receive no benefit. If he renews the policy, the premiums will be higher than with his initial policy because they will be based on his age of 40 instead of 30.

If George is diagnosed with a terminal illness during the first policy term, he likely will not be eligible to renew once that policy expires. Some policies do offer guaranteed re-insurability (without proof of insurability), but such features, when available, tend to make the policy cost more.

Types of Term Life Insurance

There are several different types of term life insurance; the best option will depend on your individual circumstances.

1. Level term, or level-premium, policies

These provide coverage for a specified period ranging from 10 to 30 years. Both the death benefit and premium are fixed. Because actuaries must account for the increasing costs of insurance over the life of the policy’s effectiveness, the premium is comparatively higher than yearly renewable term life insurance.

2. Yearly renewable term (YRT) Policies

Yearly renewable term (YRT) policies have no specified term, but can be renewed each year without providing evidence of insurability. The premiums change from year to year; as the insured person ages, the premiums increase. Although there is no specified term, premiums can become prohibitively expensive as individuals age, making the policy an unattractive choice for many.

3. Decreasing term policies

These policies have a death benefit that declines each year, according to a predetermined schedule. The policyholder pays a fixed, level premium for the duration of the policy. Decreasing term policies are often used in concert with a mortgage to match the coverage with the declining principal of the home loan.

Benefits of Term Life Insurance

Term life insurance is attractive to young people with children. Parents may obtain large amounts of coverage for reasonably low costs. Upon the death of a parent, the significant benefit can replace lost income.

These policies are also well-suited for people who temporarily need specific amounts of life insurance. For example, the policyholder may calculate that by the time the policy expires, their survivors will no longer need extra financial protection or will have accumulated enough liquid assets to self-insure. 

Term Life Insurance vs. Permanent Insurance

Cost of premiums

Term life policies are ideal for people who want substantial coverage at low costs. Whole life customers pay more in premiums for less coverage but have the security of knowing they are protected for life.  

While many buyers favor the affordability of term life, paying premiums for an extended period and having no benefit after the term’s expiration is an unattractive feature. Upon renewal, term life insurance premiums increase with age and may become cost-prohibitive over time. In fact, renewal term life premiums may be more expensive than permanent life insurance premiums would have been at the issue of the original term life policy. 

Availability of coverage

Unless a term policy has guaranteed renewable policy, the company could refuse to renew coverage at the end of a policy’s term if the policyholder developed a serious illness. Permanent insurance provides coverage for life, as long as premiums are paid.

Investment value

Some customers prefer permanent life insurance because the policies can have an investment or savings vehicle. A portion of each premium payment is allocated to the cash value, which may have a growth guarantee. Some plans pay dividends, which can be paid out or kept on deposit within the policy. Over time, the cash value growth may be sufficient to pay the premiums on the policy. There are also several unique tax benefits, such as tax-deferred cash value growth and tax-free access to the cash portion.

Financial advisors warn that the growth rate of a policy with cash value is often paltry compared to other financial instruments, such as mutual funds and exchange-traded funds (ETFs). Also, substantial administrative fees often cut into the rate of return. Hence, the common phrase “buy term and invest the difference.” However, the performance is steady and tax-advantaged, a benefit in time when the stock market is volatile.

Other factors

Apparently, there is no one-size-fits-all answer to the term versus permanent insurance debate. Other factors to consider include: 

  • Is the rate of return earned on investments sufficiently attractive?
  • Does the permanent policy have a loan provision and other features?
  • Does the policyholder have or intend to have a business that requires insurance coverage?
  • Will life insurance play a role in tax-sheltering a sizable estate?

Term Life Insurance vs. Convertible Term Life Insurance

Convertible term life insurance is a term life policy that includes a conversion rider. The rider guarantees the right to convert an in-force term policy—or one about to expire—to a permanent plan without going through underwriting or proving insurability. The conversion rider should allow you to convert to any permanent policy the insurance company offers with no restrictions.

The primary features of the rider are maintaining the original health rating of the term policy upon conversion, even if you later have health issues or become uninsurable, and deciding when and how much of the coverage to convert. The basis for the premium of the new permanent policy is your age at conversion. 

Of course, overall premiums will increase significantly, since whole life insurance is more expensive than term life insurance. The advantage is the guaranteed approval without a medical exam. Medical conditions that develop during the term life period cannot adjust premiums upward. However, if you want to add additional riders to the new policy, such as a long-term care rider, the company may require limited or full underwriting.



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