Term life insurance provides coverage for a certain length of time, with policies commonly lasting between 10 and 30 years. Unlike a permanent life insurance policy, which offers lifetime protection under most circumstances, term life insurance coverage typically ends once you’ve outlived the term. There are some exceptions to this rule, when a policy is renewable or convertable, allowing you to continue coverage without purchasing another policy if you elect to do so. If this is something you plan on, you will need to meet your policy’s deadlines and requirements for conversion or renewal. Whether you are considering term life insurance or already have an active policy, it is wise to have an awareness of what happens once you’ve outlived the term. Planning your next steps ahead of time can help you to maintain uninterrupted coverage and potentially save money, too.

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What happens when term life insurance expires?

While term coverage is often purchased assuming that any dependents will be grown and financially independent by the time it expires, that is not always the case.

Generally, when term life insurance expires, the policy simply expires, and no action needs to be taken by the policyholder. A notice is sent by the insurance carrier that the policy is no longer in effect, the policyholder stops paying the premiums, and there is no longer any potential death benefit. If the policyholder had a return-of-premium policy, a check would be sent for the amount paid into the policy throughout its term.

The exception is if there is a term conversion rider on your policy, which allows the policyholder to convert the term policy to a permanent insurance policy as you near the end of the term, without taking another medical exam. This option may be worth considering for people who need coverage, but whose health has declined and might not be able to pass a physical exam. Keep in mind that conversion policies typically have strict deadlines for conversion, often several months before your policy expires. So if you have a conversion policy, make sure you are aware of when you have to convert it if that’s something you are interested in doing.

In addition, with some term policies, you might have the option to renew your term life insurance policy on an annual basis after the initial term expires. If you choose to renew your policy, you will keep the same amount of coverage you originally had, but you’re only covered for one year at a time. Each time you renew your policy, your premium will most likely increase, as term life premiums get more expensive with age to account for the increased risk to the insurance carrier.

Purchasing coverage after you outlive your term life insurance

Those who will need further coverage after the term policy expires may want to start evaluating other options six months to one year before the policy expires. That way, you’ll have time to add a term conversion rider to your current policy if needed.

Term conversion

As noted, some policies allow a term conversion at the end of the policy’s term. With this option, the policy is switched to a permanent life policy, without requiring a medical exam. Term conversion policies may come with higher rates, but they allow the insured to maintain coverage after their term ends, as long as the policy was converted before the policy’s stated deadline. For many people, converting rather than purchasing a new policy may be cheaper. While health status won’t be a variable in eligibility, your new premium will be based on your age at the time of conversion.

However, it’s important to know that convertible term life insurance takes proactive planning. You typically need to apply for the conversion several months or even a year before your original term’s end date. Plus, you need to have purchased a policy with a conversion rider to have this option in the first place. For example, if you buy coverage from a company that doesn’t offer permanent policies, conversion isn’t possible. Because not all term policies are convertible, it’s important to review your policy documents or speak to an agent to learn more about your options.

Purchase a new term policy

For the relatively young who are in good health, the most inexpensive life insurance option might be to purchase a new term policy. Premium costs may also go down if a much lower death benefit and a shorter term are purchased, which may be a good option for people who need less coverage than when they purchased their initial term policy.

For example, for someone whose youngest child is still in high school when their 20-year term policy expires, an additional 10-year policy may be sufficient to ensure that their dependent has completed college and no longer needs financial support from their parents’ income.

Keep in mind that a medical exam will likely be part of the underwriting process for any new term policy, and if there are new health issues since the first policy, the rate will likely increase. Age is also a factor — older people pay more for their term life insurance policies.

Purchase a permanent policy

Another option for those who do not have a term conversion rider on their policy is to purchase a permanent life insurance policy after the term policy expires. It is important to keep in mind that permanent life policies, such as whole life insurance, are more expensive than term — sometimes as much as ten times more expensive (but cost depends on a variety of personal factors and policy choices).

One of the benefits of a permanent policy is that the coverage is valid under most circumstances until death as long as the premiums are paid. Permanent policies also have a tax-deferred cash value account. A portion of the premium is placed in a savings vehicle that grows and can be used as collateral for a loan or withdrawn.

Although the cash value portion will probably not earn as much interest as some other investments, such as the stock market, it is generally safe and can play a key role in financial planning. Your cash value account will likely have a cap for interest and returns, information which can be found in your policy documents.

Some experts don’t recommend permanent policies for everyone, often because of the cost, but there are certain circumstances where these policies may make the most sense. For instance, permanent policies may be a good choice for someone who has a child with a disability who will never be financially independent or a non-working partner who would need help maintaining their lifestyle if the working partner dies.

Final expenses insurance

The median cost of a funeral in the United States is $7,848. For those who don’t want to burden their heirs with end-of-life expenses and don’t need a significant payout, one type of permanent insurance to consider is final expenses or burial insurance. Final expense life insurance often has low coverage limits capped at $10,000 or $25,000, so it’s not the best option for income replacement. Additionally, the premiums tend to be comparatively expensive because a medical exam is not required and the insurance company assumes more risk. As with similar forms of insurance, cost will go up for more coverage and will also rise with the policyholder’s age.

Final expense insurance can be a good choice for older adults whose primary goal is to prevent their beneficiaries from facing financial challenges associated with their death. It may also be suitable for people with pre-existing health conditions, or those who have been denied standard life insurance in the past.

Frequently asked questions

    • The best life insurance company for you will be a personal decision, based on your unique characteristics and coverage needs. Speaking with an independent insurance agent can be a good first step toward identifying the best life insurance companies to fit your budget, health and overall situation.
    • Choosing between different types of life insurance can be stressful. Term policies will be the right choice for some people, while permanent policies will work better for others. When deciding between term and permanent life insurance, it may be helpful to know that term life policies are generally cheaper than permanent life insurance policies while you are young. Term life insurance may be a good option for someone who only wants coverage before their children graduate from college, for instance. Other people appreciate permanent insurance for providing lifelong coverage and a savings component.
    • Even if you do not have dependents, you still may want to consider a life insurance policy. Many people choose to purchase a policy with their spouse as the beneficiary to assist that person with the burden of end-of-life costs. You may also choose to leave your policy’s death benefit to a nonprofit organization, educational institution or business you care about.
    • Yes, you can cancel a life insurance policy at any time. If you have a term policy, you can either formally cancel with your insurance company, or you can simply stop paying the premiums. With permanent life insurance, however, the cancellation process can be more complicated. You typically have to start the cancellation process by notifying your insurance company. Depending on how long the policy has been in force, you might be required to pay a surrender fee. In most cases, you are allowed to keep the insured cash value when you cancel a permanent life insurance policy, but the cancellation fees will be subtracted from your final payout. Check your specific policy or speak with your insurance agent to learn more about the process and any potential penalties for canceling.