Should You Buy Whole Life Insurance?

How to determine if whole life insurance is right for you.

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Neda Jafarzadeh
Making decisions about life insurance can be complicated for a number of reasons. On the one hand, it’s always difficult to think about the possibility of dying – this psychological barrier to critically examining your insurance needs can be quite substantial for some people. On the other hand, you’re also faced with the additional challenge of comparing all the different types of life insurance products on the market today.

The first important decision you'll have to make when comparing types of life insurance is whether you’d like to opt for a term or whole life policy.

As the names of these policies indicate, a term policy is only meant to cover you for a certain period of time. Usually, this type of policy is purchased for a term of 20 to 30 years.

In contrast, a whole life policy is meant to protect you for the duration of your life. In addition, a whole life policy has what's known as a cash value. This means that some of the money you pay into the policy every month is saved or invested, so you're able to cash it out or borrow against it if you'd like.

[Read: Should You Buy-Term Care Insurance?]

Whole life insurance is often referred to as a hybrid product – a blend between insurance and a savings or investment vehicle.

There are three basic types of whole life insurance:

1. Universal. Universal life insurance is the most basic type of whole life insurance, in which some of the premium paid by the purchaser goes toward a death benefit (to be used in the event that the purchaser dies) and some of the premium goes toward savings or a very safe investment.

2. Variable Life. Variable life insurance is more investment than insurance because most of the premium paid goes toward an investment in the insurance company's fund. This is considered a somewhat riskier insurance choice because death benefits can be impacted by investment returns. If you want a guaranteed death benefit, you'll have to pay more toward your premium.

3. Variable Universal. This type of whole life insurance is a blend between universal and variable life insurance. It offers a guaranteed death benefit in most cases, but the portion of the premium that's not going toward the death benefit can be invested as the purchaser sees fit (within the confines of the insurance company's investment choices). This makes it more flexible than typical universal policies, but safer than typical variable life policies.

[Read: 4 Life Insurance Policies You Should Never Buy.]

So is whole life insurance right for you? As with nearly all financial products, there are benefits of this decision as well as some drawbacks.

Benefits of choosing whole life insurance:

  • Your beneficiaries are covered for the duration of your life, which makes some people more comfortable than the time limit placed on a term policy
  • If you or your beneficiaries don't file a claim, the money you paid into the policy every month isn't wasted – it has a cash value you can draw on
  • If you're a high-income individual who's maxed out your tax deferred investments, a variable or variable universal policy serves as an additional investment or savings vehicle
  • Drawbacks of choosing whole life insurance:

    • Premiums are significantly more expensive than term insurance premiums
    • Depending on your circumstances, you may not need life insurance for the rest of your days, meaning you could end up overspending on an unnecessary product
    • Many insurance companies don't have the wide range of investment options that most people are looking for
    • Picking the right type of life insurance is critical for you and your family, so be sure to do your research to carefully consider which will best serve your needs.
    • [Read: Is Life Insurance a Retirement Investment?]

      Neda Jafarzadeh is a financial analyst for NerdWallet. NerdWallet is a financial literacy website committed to helping consumers make better financial decisions with issues ranging from finding affordable health care, to finding the best online brokerage accounts for their investments.