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How Does Life Insurance Work? - allstate layoffs

 How Does Life Insurance Work?

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Life insurance is one way you can provide financial support for loved ones after you die. When you open a life insurance policy, you will pay a regular premium – often monthly or annually – in exchange for coverage. As long as your policy is active when you die, the insurance company will pay out a lump sum, also known as a death benefit, to the policy beneficiaries.

Even though many life insurance policies work the same way, each type has significant differences that further define how they work. These differences can include how long the coverage lasts, if the policy includes an investment component, and whether or not you can access funds before your death. Understanding these differences can help you select the best policy for your needs.

What Does Life Insurance Cover?

Unlike other insurance policies, which typically dictate how the policyholder can use a claim payout, life insurance benefits can cover a wide variety of expenses. In many cases, policyholders invest in life insurance to replace their income and ensure that their beneficiary can meet financial obligations, including:

End-of-life expenses, such as funeral and burial costs
Mortgage payments
Tuition payments
Personal debt, including outstanding loans or credit card bills
Day-to-day expenses, like groceries
Financial obligations aren’t the only way to use death benefit funds, however. Some individuals choose to open a life insurance policy to build an inheritance for their children or make a charitable donation to the policyholder's organization of choice.

Depending on the policy you choose, you may also be able to use life insurance funds to manage expenses while you’re alive. For instance, if you have a whole or universal life policy, your insurer will likely let you borrow against it to fund expenses like your child’s college tuition or make a downpayment on a house. However, keep in mind that if you do borrow against your life insurance account, the full death benefit may not be available if you die before paying back the funds.

What Doesn’t Life Insurance Cover?

Life insurance covers most causes of death, including natural and accidental causes, suicide, and homicide. However, some caveats may prevent your beneficiaries from receiving their death benefit.

Dr. Steven Weisbart, who served as the chief economist at the Insurance Information Institute until his retirement in 2020, indicated that there are two common reasons why an insurer may deny a life insurance claim: a lapse in payment or misrepresentation of the policyholder's health.

If the policyholder misrepresents or omits information about their health, insurance providers may deny a claim. That is particularly true during the contestability period, which is typically a two-year window after the policy begins.

In addition to those common causes, an insurer may deny a claim based on the circumstances of the death. For instance, if a policyholder dies by homicide, the insurer will likely deny a claim if the beneficiary is responsible for or involved in the victim’s death.

Life insurance policies also frequently include what’s known as a suicide clause, which voids coverage if the policyholder dies by suicide within a specific period, often two years, after opening a policy.

Finally, some insurance providers will deny claims if the policyholder dies while engaging in a high-risk activity, like skydiving, at their time of death. As such, it’s important to discuss coverage limitations with your life insurance agent or broker before purchasing a policy.

What Type of Life Insurance Do I Need?

Which type of life insurance you need depends on several factors, including your reason for purchasing a policy, your finances, and any investment goals you may have. Below are some of the most common life insurance policies available as well as when they may suit your needs:

Term Life Insurance

A term life policy is life insurance that lasts for a specific period, typically from one to 30 years. During the term, the policyholder makes fixed premium payments in exchange for a guaranteed death benefit.

Under a term life policy, coverage ends at the end of the term. However, some insurance companies allow policyholders to extend their coverage to another term or convert it to a permanent policy.

Term life insurance is often the most affordable policy available.

Learn more about Term Life Insurance.

Whole Life Insurance

Whole life insurance is one type of permanent life insurance. As long as the policyholder pays their premium, the policy will remain active their entire life. In most cases, the policy premium and death benefit are fixed, and you will pay the same premium as long as you have the policy.

Whole life insurance also has a separate cash value component, which grows as the insurer pays policyholders dividends, a portion of the insurance company’s revenue that is paid to policyholders. Policyholders may be able to withdraw from or borrow against the cash value portion of their policy to fund expenses while they’re living.

Based on our analysis of current life insurance costs, a whole life policy is typically more expensive than a term life one, but it may be a good option if you don't want a policy limited by terms. It also may be a good option if you’d like a savings component incorporated into your policy.

Learn more about Whole Life Insurance.

Universal Life Insurance

Like whole life insurance, universal life insurance covers you for your entire life as long as you make regular premium payments. And, like whole life insurance, a universal policy has a cash value, but cash value growth depends on market growth. When market interest rates are strong, the cash-back value of a universal policy will grow at a higher rate. The opposite is true when markets are performing poorly, the cash value will grow at a slower rate. Standard universal policies will usually have a guaranteed minimum interest rate.

You can also borrow against or withdraw funds from this account to pay your premium or to fund expenses like weddings, educational expenses, or a down payment on a new home.

Unlike whole life insurance, universal life insurance offers more flexibility because you can typically change your death benefits and premiums to accommodate changing circumstances. As such, universal life insurance may be worth considering if you’re looking for a policy that provides more flexibility.

Learn more about Universal Life Insurance.

Bottom Line: Though the policies above are the most common, today’s robust life insurance market provides consumers with many policies to choose from, including variations of those listed above. For instance, some providers offer no medical exam policies. That means you may be able to get life insurance without a physical examination, something traditionally required by many insurers.

Likewise, you can also choose from variable life insurance. Like a whole life insurance policy, variable policies have a cash value and death benefit. However, the cash value of a variable life policy is built through investments, like mutual funds, bonds, and stock options. That means the cash value may grow quickly in a good market, but there is also more risk when the markets perform poorly as your cash value could decrease.

There are also insurance providers that offer variable universal life policies, which combine characteristics of variable and universal life policies. For instance, much like a universal life insurance policy, a variable universal life insurance policy allows you to make changes to the death benefit and premiums as your needs or circumstances change.

Understanding your needs and long-term goals and discussing them with a trusted insurance agent or financial advisor can help you determine which type of policy best suits you and your beneficiaries.

Is Life Insurance Worth It?

Whether or not life insurance is worth the investment depends on several factors, including your finances, end-of-life goals, the needs of your beneficiaries, and the type of policy you choose.

If you have loved ones that depend on you for financial stability, a life insurance policy may be well worth the investment. Regardless of which life policy you choose, the death benefit can help your family cover a wide range of costs, including mortgage payments, tuition, and day-to-day expenses.

The death benefit from a life insurance policy can also cover end-of-life expenses, like funeral and burial costs, taxes, and any personal or medical debt that remains after you die.

The benefits of a life insurance policy aren’t limited to covering expenses after your death, however. According to the Insurance Information Institute, some types of insurance, like whole and universal life policies, offer a cash value that you can borrow (e.g., a loan) or withdraw from to cover expenses, like college tuition or a new home, before the policyholder dies. As such, a life insurance policy may also supplement your existing savings or retirement account. However, if you’re using the cash value to cover your premiums and the amount isn’t enough to make the payments, you may lapse on your policy.

When Isn’t Life Insurance Worth It?

If you don’t have dependents or your loved ones can cover end-of-life expenses with your existing savings or investments, a life insurance policy may not be necessary.

Is Life Insurance a Good Investment?

Depending on the policy type you choose, life insurance may help supplement your existing investment strategy, but it may not be the right investment tool for everyone.

The tax benefits of permanent life insurance policies with a cash value component can lead some policyholders to view life insurance as a good investment. For example, when you pay your premium for a whole life policy, the cash value can grow as a tax-deferred investment, meaning the funds aren’t taxed before they go into your account and they grow tax-free until you withdraw them.

Another reason some individuals may view life insurance as an investment is the tax-free advantage that beneficiaries receive. Though there are some circumstances where a beneficiary may be required to pay taxes on the death benefit, for the most part, the money isn't taxed and your beneficiaries receive the full policy payout. That can be an efficient way to invest when you intend to transfer wealth to a beneficiary.

However, there are other ways to invest and build wealth. America’s Institute of CPAs advises consumers to weigh additional investment options, like stocks and bonds, which may yield better returns. To do so, consider your long-term goals, whether it’s providing a financial safety net for loved ones or leaving behind an inheritance for your heirs. Ask if life insurance or other investment vehicles will best help you reach these goals.

If you’re considering life insurance as a way to invest your money, it's wise to consult a financial planner. They can help you determine what investment opportunities are right for you and where life insurance fits in your overall strategy.

How Much Life Insurance Do I Need?

One of the best ways to figure out how much life insurance you need is to consider your reasons for taking out a policy in the first place.

If your goal is to provide loved ones with financial support after your death, consider a benefit amount that replaces your income and covers any additional end-of-life expenses your family may incur. These may include funeral expenses and any outstanding debts your family will be required to pay in your absence, such as your mortgage or other loans.

In addition to these immediate expenses, you may also want to consider any additional long-term expenses you’d like to cover in the future. For instance, some individuals may purchase enough life insurance to pay off their home, manage a child’s long-term educational expenses, or provide their spouse with enough money to cover medical or retirement costs.

The amount of money necessary to support your loved ones or reach your financial goals can vary based on several factors, like inflation, other insurance or investment accounts you have, and your partner’s anticipated income.

It's a good idea to discuss life insurance death benefits with a financial advisor. An advisor can analyze your current and future earnings and determine if life insurance payouts will be enough to help you reach your goals or protect your loved ones.

How Much Is Life Insurance?

Life insurance costs vary from person to person, as is the case with most insurance policies. Here are a few factors that can impact your insurance premiums:


One of the leading impacts on your life insurance premiums is your age. Life insurance is significantly less expensive for younger individuals, particularly those who are in generally good health. As you get older, premiums on a new life insurance policy will increase.


Healthier individuals will often receive better rates than those considered unhealthy or at higher risk for health problems. To determine this, your insurer may look for proof of pre-existing conditions or serious illnesses, like cancer or heart disease. They may also evaluate specific health metrics, like your weight, blood pressure, and cholesterol levels.


Historically, men have paid higher rates than their female counterparts. In part, this is because men have a shorter life expectancy than women. This leads many life insurance companies to charge men higher premiums.

Smoking & Tobacco Use

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), smoking and tobacco use can lead to numerous health conditions, including asthma, cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), heart attacks, and strokes. As such, smoking increases your premium payments.

Policy Type

As indicated in the tables below, the type of policy you choose can drastically affect your life insurance premium. According to the data we’ve collected, term life insurance policies are typically cheaper, with longer-term policies costing slightly more than short-term ones. Permanent life insurance policies, including whole and universal, often cost more because coverage lasts for the policyholder's entire life.

Occupation and Hobbies

Some occupations and hobbies can put policyholders at a higher risk of death. For instance, truck drivers, construction workers, and law enforcement officers have an increased risk of fatal injury. Similarly, some hobbies, like skydiving or scuba diving, also increase the chance of death. If you’re engaged in a high-risk activity, whether it’s occupational or leisure, you may pay a higher premium.

The comparison charts below provide a snapshot of how life insurance rates can change based on the above factors.

How Do You File a Life Insurance Claim?

Every insurance company has its own method for filing claims, but typically you can start the claim online or over the phone. Before you start a claim, it’s helpful to gather the following documentation or information:

Policyholder's Social Security number
Policyholder's date of birth
Policyholder's date of death
The original death certificate
Insurance policy number
Once you gather that information, you can typically begin a claim online, via mail, or over the phone. If your agent has a local office, you may also be able to file your claim in person.

Upon beginning the claim, you will likely receive a claim form or packet that you must complete and return to complete your claim. At this time, you must also determine how you would like to receive the death benefit.

After you’ve completed the required documentation, send it, along with the death certificate and any other pertinent documentation, to the insurance provider. They will then review the claim and, if it’s approved, issue the payment.

Does Life Insurance Cover Death by Suicide?

When the cause of death is suicide, most life insurance policies will approve a claim only if the policy has been fully active for two years. Any lapses in the policy – like if the premiums weren't paid on time – tend to restart this two-year period. The fine print also typically clarifies that it makes no difference whether the policyholder is designated as sane or not. No matter how large the benefit from any life insurance policy you may have is, it is not worth more to your loved ones than having you around.

If you are contemplating suicide, help is available. Call any time of day for free, confidential support from the National Suicide Prevention Line at 800-273-8255. The organization also operates more than 150 crisis centers that offer encouragement and local resources. A number of different treatments have been shown to help, ranging from different types of therapies, medication, and skills training. Sometimes the solution is a combination of more than one of these approaches.

You can also call the National Suicide Prevention Line if you have concerns that someone you love may be thinking about suicide. The crisis line can offer advice and support to help understand and cope with this difficult situation.

Is Life Insurance Taxable?

Life insurance death benefits are typically not taxable, but you may be required to pay taxes on any interest you receive on the death benefit. For instance, if the death benefit is paid in installments, the beneficiary may need to pay interest on the remaining amount. You may also owe taxes if the policyholder’s beneficiary is their estate (instead of an individual) and the total value of the estate exceeds the limits set by the IRS.

If you’re unsure of your tax obligation, contact the IRS or a local tax agent for more information.