“Do I need life insurance?” “Is whole life insurance a good investment?” “Is term life insurance risky?” Questions like these are posted in online communities on a daily basis. The answers vary widely, with the term life and whole life camps polarized. The tone of the debate is surprisingly strident. After all, the topic is insurance—not a something expected to inspire strong opinions, let alone strong language. But words like “rip-off,” “scam,” and “waste of money” fly back and forth, sometimes accompanied by rows of exclamation marks or worse. What is behind the brouhaha? And which camp—if either—is right?
The two sides do not even agree about whether a person needs life insurance. Whole lifers say, yes. You do not want the death of a family member to disrupt your family’s finances or jeopardize its future. It is hard enough to adjust to the loss of a loved one. Adding financial difficulties exacerbates the problem. With the skyrocketing costs of funerals, even children and seniors should have at least a small life insurance policy.
Not so fast, say the term lifers. The only reason to have life insurance is to replace the lost income of a family member who dies, and then only when the spouse or family is dependent on that income. If you are single with no dependents and no debts that might be transferred to your family in the event you die, then you do not need life insurance. If you are married and your spouse works, you probably do not need life insurance, either, assuming your spouse makes enough to support himself or herself.
The time for life insurance, term lifers say, is when the policyholder’s income is vital to the financial security of the family. If, for example, you have purchased a home together and your spouse could not pay the mortgage and other bills by himself or herself, then life insurance is in order. If you have children, you will want to have enough life insurance to allow your family to maintain its lifestyle after you are gone. This includes not only meeting day-to-day expenses, but also being able to follow through with plans for higher education. Insurance professionals recommend buying a policy with a face value 5-10 times the breadwinner’s annual salary to help family meet expenses for a period of years.
Whole lifers see problems with the term-life scenario. The view it as overly optimistic, even naïve. Many things can happen during the 20- to 30-year period covered by term life insurance that could extend the need for coverage beyond the policy’s end date. For example, children may be born mentally retarded, with severe autism, or with another serious condition that could prevent them from becoming independent when they reach adulthood. Children also can develop a disease or suffer an accident that disables them. A spouse, too, can become disabled. In these situations, the family will remain dependent on the breadwinner’s income long after the term life policy expires.
Term life insurance advocates point out that in such cases, the breadwinner can renew the term life policy, or take out a new one. Now it’s the whole lifers’ turn to say, “Not so fast.” By the time the second term life policy is needed, the breadwinner will likely be in his or her fifties or even sixties. Due to the age of the insured, the cost of a second term life policy will be much higher than the cost of the first was. With the added years come added risks of certain diseases. If the breadwinner is obese, has developed high blood pressure, a heart condition, diabetes, or another disease, the cost of the term life policy will skyrocket. If the individual has developed cancer or AIDS, he or she may not be insurable at all. In such situations, the cost savings realized on the first term life policy could be wiped out by the high cost of a second term life policy.
By contrast, the premiums of a whole life policy are set for life and do not go up with age or medical condition. A whole life policy cannot be canceled due to medical conditions, either. The policy remains in force until death, as long as the premiums are paid.
“Until death” is another advantage of whole life, its advocates maintain. Whole life gets its name from the fact that it insures the policyholder life until death. As a result, whole life insurance is guaranteed to pay a death benefit—the amount the policy pays upon the death of the insured. The death benefit can be increased—at certain points at no additional cost—as the policyholder ages. A small policy designed to cover the funeral costs of a child can be increased to provide adequate coverage during an adult’s peak earning years. Whatever the death benefit or “face value” of the whole life policy, the insurance company guarantees to pay it. As a result, the policyholder or his or her beneficiaries always receive some, all, or more than the premiums paid into the policy.
This is not the case with a term life policy, whole lifers point out. The term life insurance policyholder can pay premiums for 30 years, but if he or she outlives the policy—even by a day—then all of the premium money is gone. The only thing the policyholder will have received is 30 years worth of peace of mind.
Whole life insurance, by contrast, accumulates a value that the policyholder can access during his or her lifetime. This value is known as the cash value or the surrender value. The whole life policy holder can use the cash value as collateral for a loan, or even borrow some of it during his or her lifetime. The policyholder must pay this amount back. If he or she dies before it is paid back, then the unpaid amount is deducted from the death benefit. If the policyholder decides to cancel the policy, the insurance company will pay him or her the cash value, which is then known as the surrender value. Whole life, its proponents maintain, is not only insurance against death. It is an investment for life.
This is where the debate turns nasty. Term lifers often ridicule the investment features of whole life. Because whole life always pays a death benefit, it costs 5-10 times more than term life does. Term lifers argue that a person is much better off getting a term policy for the same face value that they would get a whole life policy, then saving and investing the difference in premiums. Almost any investment will return more than a whole life policy will, term lifer proponents maintain. Over 20 or 30 years, the difference can be vast. Buy insurance to insure, the term lifers say, and use the savings to invest.
Whole lifers respond that the return on a whole life policy is guaranteed at the outset, something than cannot be said for other investments. To earn greater rewards, the term life policyholder must take greater risks in the open market. Many investments will outperform whole life insurance, but not all will. Some investments lose money, as shareholders in World Com, Enron, Peregrine Systems, and many other companies can attest.
Even if the investment will pay out, it is not certain that the term life policyholder will actually make it. To do so, he or she must calculate the amount saved over whole life insurance; save that money every month, quarter, or year; research possible investments; and contribute to that investment regularly for 20 or 30 years. This makes sense for disciplined and savvy investors, but many others will find the endeavor daunting and time consuming. They may not start it, and if they do, they may not continue it. Whole life takes care of insurance, savings, and investment in one easy payment. Even if the returns on whole life are not great, saving something is better than saving nothing, and nothing is exactly how much many term life policyholders will end up saving.
Both whole life and term life have pros and cons. People who are financially savvy and disciplined will gain from the term life scenario. Those who need a convenient and simple mechanism for insurance and savings will benefit from whole life insurance. Deciding which is best for you requires an honest appraisal of your goals, your lifestyle, and your investing skills.