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While there are a few different types of life insurance policies available, two of the most common are term life and permanent life. Although term life insurance is almost always cheaper than permanent life, it lacks some essential benefits that permanent life can afford you. However, whether the extra cost outweighs the benefits depends on your needs and financial goals. Knowing the differences in how these policies work can empower you to make an informed decision when shopping for new coverage. Bankrate’s insurance editorial team breaks down term life insurance to help you better understand if this policy type is right for you.

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Key takeaways
  • Term life insurance only stays in effect for a predetermined number of years, such as 10 or 30 years, unlike permanent life policies.
  • 99 percent of all term policies never pay a death benefit, because most term policyholders stop paying their premium, causing their policy to lapse.
  • Term policies are around three times cheaper than permanent life insurance, on average, because the chance of a payout on behalf of the policyholder is less likely.
  • If you want to see a return on payments towards a term life insurance policy, you may want to look into conversion riders or return-of-premium riders.

What is term life insurance?

Term life insurance is a type of policy that lasts for a predetermined period of time, rather than your entire life. When purchasing a term life policy, you’ll choose a policy term, most commonly between 10 and 30 years. If the insured passes away within that term, their beneficiaries will receive a death benefit.

To help understand how term life insurance works, imagine you purchase a 10-year term life insurance policy. During that decade, you would pay your monthly or annual premium on time. If you were to pass away within that 10-year period, your beneficiaries would receive a death benefit.

If the insured does not pass away within the policy term and the coverage expires, the policy will end and the beneficiaries will not receive a death benefit when the insured passes away. However, there are exceptions to this scenario. Many of the best life insurance companies offer specialized riders, like conversion and return-of-premium riders, that tweak the way term life insurance policies work. If you are purchasing term life insurance, you may want to speak with your agent about what riders are available for your specific policy.

Advantages of term life insurance Disadvantages of term life insurance
Cheaper than permanent life insurance on average No cash value component or investment potential to build wealth
Conversion and return-of-premium riders can add flexibility and peace of mind Only covers a specified time period
Gives families the ability to cover significant financial liabilities that will eventually expire after a set period of time, such as mortgages and tuition Sunk cost if you outlive the policy

Advantages of term life insurance policies

When choosing life insurance, it’s important to know how term and whole life insurance policies compare. Term life insurance has a couple of key advantages that make it an attractive option for those who need a larger death benefit for a specific period of time. It is typically the cheapest type of life insurance, especially for younger people or new parents. The larger death benefit at a reasonable price can provide for children dependents if something happens to the parent(s) earlier than anticipated.

Many financial planners encourage people to buy term life insurance and invest the money saved by not purchasing more expensive permanent life insurance. For policies with level premiums, the cost will not increase with age for the policy’s life as it does with some other life insurance options.

Learn more: Compare life insurance quotes

Disadvantages of term life insurance policies

Term life insurance does have a few limitations to keep in mind. For example, term life insurance policies pay out a death benefit when the insured passes away, but these policies do not include a cash value account. Whole life insurance policies, on the other hand, typically include a cash value account that may accumulate limited interest and capped returns. Some permanent life insurance policyholders use their cash value accounts to build wealth, but that option does not exist with a term life policy.

Another potential downside to having a term life insurance policy is that it only remains in effect for a certain period of time. Because policyholders can outlive their policies, there’s a chance that the death benefit will never be paid out. In fact, a study done by Penn State University indicates that 99 percent of all term policies never pay out a death benefit. However, that’s because most term policyholders don’t pay their premiums and let their policies lapse, not because they outlive the policy term, according to Entrepreneur.

Learn more: Best term life insurance companies

Types of term life insurance

There are several different term life insurance options, and some offer more guarantees than others. Usually, the more guarantees the policy offers, the more expensive the policy is. Here is a breakdown of the major types of term life insurance policies:

  • Level term insurance: Both the premiums and the death benefit remain constant over the policy’s life with this form of term coverage. Level term insurance usually lasts for anywhere from 10 to 30 years.
  • Decreasing term insurance: This type of term insurance, usually used to cover a shrinking debt such as a mortgage, is typically less expensive because the death benefit slowly decreases over time.
  • Guaranteed renewable term insurance: This type of term coverage allows the policyholder to renew the policy at the end of the term without having to undergo a medical exam or prove insurability again. It is more expensive overall, and it is important to note that the policy premiums will still increase with each successive term. A yearly renewable term is a form of guaranteed renewable term coverage.
  • Convertible term insurance: If you purchase a conversion rider and outlive your policy term, your coverage would turn into a permanent life insurance policy. Typically, you will not have to undergo another medical exam during policy conversion. Keep in mind that your premium or death benefit amount will change based on your age at the time of conversion. For example, if you wish to continue paying around the same premium, your death benefit would decrease, whereas you’d pay more to maintain around the same death benefit.
  • Return-of-premium term insurance: Some policyholders may be worried about signing up for a term policy, outliving their term and “wasting” the premiums they paid over the course of the policy term. This specialized rider provides a partial or full refund if you outlive the policy term. However, that rider will cost you extra during the policy term.

How much does term life insurance cost?

Term life insurance premiums are calculated based on the age and health of applicants. Because of this, pricing for a term life insurance policy varies but is typically significantly cheaper for younger applicants. Age and health are the main determinants of your premium, and the insurance company you choose won’t generally affect your rates much. If you get quotes for the same coverage from multiple providers, be prepared for the quotes to be similar.

The primary reason to compare life insurance companies is based on what type of policy riders you may need, how positive the customer satisfaction may be or what the insurer’s financial strength ratings are compared to other insurers.

Learn more: Affordable life insurance companies

Will I get my money back at the end of my term?

Unless you purchase a return-of-premium term life insurance policy, you will not get any money back at the end of the term. Paying premiums without receiving a death benefit is one of the potential disadvantages of purchasing term life insurance. A return-of-premium rider would increase the cost of your term life insurance, but would allow you to recoup a portion or all of your paid premiums. If you want to receive money back in the event that you outlive your policy term, you may want to discuss this option with your life insurance agent.

How much term life insurance do I need?

Deciding how much term life insurance you need hinges on your financial goals and specific situation. For instance, a parent of a young child may want to purchase a life insurance policy with a 15-year term. A term of this length could make the most sense as it could ensure that their child will be financially secure if the parent passes away while the policy is in place.

On the other hand, a childless couple with 10 years left on their mortgage may only want a term life insurance policy to be active while they are still paying off their home.

Some other factors to consider when determining your life insurance coverage needs include:

  • What is your yearly income and what are your expenses? How much room do you have in your budget for life insurance?
  • Are you the sole breadwinner? If not, does your spouse or partner make enough to cover your family’s current and future expenses if you aren’t there?
  • How many children do you have, and what are their ages? Do you plan to cover their higher education costs?
  • Are you a caretaker for any disabled family members?
  • Do you have a mortgage or other debts? If so, how many years will it take to be debt free?
  • How much financial help would your spouse need to keep your home afloat if you passed away?

It’s essential to consider your coverage needs to keep your life insurance premium within budget. If you carry too much coverage, you could find it challenging to keep up with your life insurance bill, putting yourself at risk of policy cancellation. If you don’t have enough coverage, your beneficiaries may struggle financially after your death. A life insurance calculator can help guide you on your life insurance shopping journey, as can a consultation with a certified financial planner.

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