Glossary of life insurance terminology & definitions

Life insurance terminology doesn't have to be confusing. Here are definitions of the most common terms and phrases you'll find in a policy.

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Nupur Gambhir

Nupur Gambhir

Senior Editor & Licensed Life Insurance Expert

Nupur Gambhir is a licensed life, health, and disability insurance expert and a former senior editor at Policygenius. Her insurance expertise has been featured in Bloomberg News, Forbes Advisor, CNET, Fortune, Slate, Real Simple, Lifehacker, The Financial Gym, and the end-of-life planning service Cake.

Updated|1 min read

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Not sure where to start when it comes to learning about life insurance, shopping for coverage, and getting all your questions answered? Our glossary of the most common terms, phrases, and concepts will help you brush up on life insurance definitions in no time. When you're ready to find the right coverage for your unique background and calculate how much you need, you can compare quotes for free or talk to a Policygenius expert.


What is life insurance?

Life insurance is an important plan for the unexpected — it offers financial protection to your loved ones if you die suddenly by replacing your income. The beneficiaries of your life insurance policy receive a lump sum that covers bills, everyday expenses, and various anticipated costs — such as medical bills or college tuition.

A

Accelerated death benefit rider

An add-on to a life insurance policy that pays out a portion of the death benefit while you are still alive if you are diagnosed with a terminal illness. An accelerated death benefit rider is paid out under specific circumstances — typically when death is imminent.

Accelerated underwriting

Accelerated underwriting dramatically shortens the life insurance application process for healthy people aged 18-60 by not requiring a medical exam.

Accrued interest

Accrued interest is the amount that the cash value of your policy has compounded over time based on your initial interest rate. You can access these funds while you're alive.

Accidental death and dismemberment rider

A policy add-on that pays out additional compensation — up to the full amount of the death benefit — if either the insured’s death is the result of an accident or he or she loses a limb because of an accident.

Unless the insured individual has a high-risk job or avocation, it’s usually not worth the extra cost, as the accidental death and dismemberment rider is rarely paid out by insurance carriers because of restrictions on the rider.

Actual age

Your actual age is the age you are today and based on your last birthday. It differs from your physical age, which is the age you are physically the closest to.

Actuarial table

Also called a mortality table, a table underwriters use that displays the probability a person will die at each age. This probability of death determines how "risky" it is to insure someone, and determines the cost of life insurance premiums.

Adverse Selection

The tendency of those with higher risk lifestyles or dangerous professions to obtain life insurance more than those who are lower risk. Insurers usually try to reduce their risk of adverse selection by having rigid underwriting guidelines in place.

Agent

Life insurance agents help you find the right policy by evaluating your individual circumstances and life insurance needs. At Policygenius, life insurance agents are not tied to any one insurer and work to get you the best policy at the best possible price.

Annual renewable term life insurance

A level term life policy that lasts for one year. Also called yearly renewable term, it guarantees coverage for one year, and can be renewed annually at a higher premium or converted to a permanent life insurance policy. Usually, this is purchased as a supplement to existing insurance for temporary needs.

Annuity

The death benefit can be paid out in annuity, meaning it is dispersed in installments over a course of years. If it is paid out as an annuity, it can be taxed.

Attending Physician Statement (APS)

If an underwriter decides it’s necessary to take a closer look at your health, either because of something you disclosed on the application or because of the results of your paramedical exam, then you will need to submit a written summary of your medical history from your doctor or hospital. This document is called an APS, or “attending physician statement.”

Avocation

An avocation is a hobby or minor occupation, like skydiving, scuba diving, or snowboarding.

Certain avocations are considered a higher risk and may result in higher rates when applying for life insurance. How much more you spend on life insurance is typically determined by how often you participate in the activity or how risky it is.

B

Backdating

Backdating is when you get a life insurance policy based on your actual age and not your nearest physical age for lower premiums. If you backdate your life insurance policy, you usually have to pay a few extra months of premiums to get the lower rate.

Beneficiary

A beneficiary is the recipient of a life insurance policy’s death benefit and is eligible to file a claim. This can be one person, several people, or an organization, as determined by the life insurance policyholder and is often the main reason people buy coverage.

Burial insurance

Also called final expense life insurance, burial insurance covers the cost of your funeral and any other end-of-life expenses.

C

Cash surrender value

The cash surrender value is the amount of money you receive if you cash in your permanent policy. It’s typically the current cash value of your policy minus any outstanding loans and interest fees, as well as any surrender or administrative fees listed in your contract. Typically the surrender value is between 50-80% of the policy’s actual cash value.

Cash value life insurance

A component of a permanent life insurance policy that works like an investment or savings account. The cash value of the policy accumulates over the policyholder’s lifetime and can be withdrawn at any time, used as collateral to take out a loan, or paid out upon the policyholder’s death.

Child protection rider

A policy add-on that provides a death benefit if a policyholder’s child passes away. The child protection rider can cover the funeral of the child or time taken off work to grieve.

Claim

Submitting the necessary paperwork to get the life insurance payout is called filing a claim. It usually requires proof of the death of the deceased and proof of identity for the beneficiary.

Collateral assignment

Using your life insurance policy as collateral for a loan is called a collateral assignment. If you die, your life insurance policy will be used to pay off your debt as opposed to being dispersed to your beneficiaries.

Company ratings

Company ratings define where a life insurance company stands from a financial and customer satisfaction standpoint. The best life insurance companies have company ratings that place them in good financial standing with credit agencies and have excellent customer service reviews.

Concealment

The deliberate hiding of or failure to disclose "material" information known to be relevant in the underwriting of an insurance policy.

For example, John tells his agent during the application process that he has never smoked when actually he did five years ago and has since quit. If the truth comes to light after the policy is in force, depending on how much time has passed the insurer has the right to cancel or modify the policy.

Contestability period

If you die within the first one to two years of your policy, your insurer can review claims and deny the death benefit to your beneficiaries if they find any evidence of fraud. This one to two year period is referred to as the contestability period.

Contingent beneficiary

The person you designate to receive the death benefit if your primary life insurance beneficiary is unable to collect the money. Without a contingent beneficiary in place, a court will decide what happens with the life insurance death benefit if the primary beneficiary is unable to claim the death benefit.

Critical illness rider

A policy add-on that pays a lump sum to the insured if he or she is diagnosed with a critical illness. Typical illnesses include heart attack, cancer, stroke, kidney failure, or a coma.

D

Death benefit

An untaxed lump sum that the life insurance policy pays to the beneficiary upon the policyholder’s death. The death benefit amount is considered the face value of the policy. Experts recommend a death benefit 10-15 times your income.

Decreasing term life insurance

A term life policy with a death benefit that decreases over time while the premium stays the same. Typically, this is sold as “mortgage insurance” because most buyers use it to cover a depreciating asset or a diminishing loan.

Disability income rider

A policy add-on that provides a monthly stipend to replace your income if you become disabled and unable to work. It can also be purchased as a standalone long-term disability policy.

E

Effective date

The date a policy is considered to be in force, or active. A policy with the effective date of February 1, 2021, means that if the insured passes away on or after that date, the policy will pay out the death benefit to any listed beneficiaries.

Exclusions

Provisions in an insurance policy that clarify coverage and explain under which circumstances the benefits will not be paid out to the listed beneficiaries. Exclusions can be lying or omitting information during the contestability period, death by suicide, or dying while participating in illegal activity.

Evidence of insurability

Your financial justification for getting life insurance is called evidence of insurability. Insurers evaluate your income, age, and financial circumstances to determine if you’re eligible for a certain amount of coverage.

F

Face value

The amount the policy is worth and what is paid out to beneficiaries upon the policy holder’s death. The face value is also known as the policy’s death benefit.

Final expense life insurance

A permanent life insurance policy designed to cover immediate expenses related to the policyholder’s death, such as the cost of the funeral or medical bills. Final expense life insurance policies are typically guaranteed issue, never expire, and are level premium.

Free look period

The free look period is the first 10-30 days of your life insurance policy, when you can cancel your coverage without penalty and get a refund of premiums you’ve paid.

G

Grace period

A uniform mandatory provision that gives the insured a period of time, based on the payment mode, to pay the required premium. During the grace period, the policy is still in force. For example: Policyholders can pay the premium 31 days after the initial due date.

Group coverage

Life insurance coverage offered by an employer, union, or organization. It is often easier to qualify for than an individual life insurance policy but doesn’t provide the amount of coverage most people need. Group coverage is best utilized as supplemental life insurance coverage.

Guaranteed issue

A type of life insurance that the insurer must issue if you can afford to pay the premiums. Applications for guaranteed issue policies cannot be rejected based on medical history or risky hobbies that might normally warrant a rejection from a life insurance application.

Guaranteed universal life insurance

A policy with a “no-lapse” guarantee as long as you pay the premiums. Guaranteed universal life insurance policies cover you for your entire life, but the premiums are lower than traditional whole life policies because there is no cash value.

H

Hazard

A condition that increases the likelihood of a loss.

I

Insurable interest

Proof that someone would suffer financially if you died. To list someone as a beneficiary on your life insurance policy, you need to prove insurable interest.

Insurance policy

The written contract between the insurance carrier and the policyholder. The insurance policy details who is covered, the term length of the policy, and under what conditions the death benefit will be paid out to the policy’s beneficiaries.

Insured

The person for whom the life insurance policy is covering. If the insured dies, this will cause the death benefit to be paid out to the designated beneficiary (or beneficiaries). Typically, this will be the policyholder, but is not always the case (i.e. one spouse is the policyholder, but the other spouse is the person being insured).

Insurer

The company providing life insurance to the insured. This is whom policyholders pay premiums to, and the insurer, in turn, pays the death benefit to the policy’s beneficiaries when the insured individual dies.

Irrevocable

A feature on the life insurance policy where the policyholder cannot make changes to the life insurance contract or remove the beneficiary from the policy without the beneficiary’s consent.

L

Lapsed

When a policy is terminated due to missed premium payments.

Level term life insurance

Another term for a term life insurance policy, a level term life policy is where the premiums and death benefit remain the same for the duration of the contract.

Life insurance classification

A determination of your risk as a life insurance candidate based on your health, family history, and avocations. The better your life insurance classification, the lower your premiums will be. There are four classifications: preferred plus, preferred, standard plus, and standard.

Long-term care rider

A policy add-on that withdraws money from your death benefit to pay for long term care such as a nursing home or private nurse. A long-term care rider can be utilized in instances of chronic illness where you are unable to take care of yourself.

M

Material misrepresentation

An intentional lie you told on your life insurance application is called material misrepresentation and is also considered fraud. Material misrepresentation on a life insurance application runs the risk that your beneficiaries will be denied the death benefit.

Medical information bureau

A resource used by life insurance companies to verify your medical history and paint a clearer picture of your health for insurers. Insurers use the information provided by the Medical Information Bureau to confirm that you were completely honest on your application.

Mortgage protection insurance

A life insurance policy that covers mortgage payments if you die unexpectedly and can no longer make them. Mortgage protection insurance pays out directly to your lender and ensures your family won’t be stuck making costly mortgage payments.

N

Non-participating life insurance policy

A life insurance policy that does not participate in any dividends issued by the insurer. For instance, a term life insurance policy, which does not have any cash value, is a non-participating life insurance policy.

O

Open enrollment

The period each year where employees can make changes to their employer-sponsored benefits. During the open enrollment period, employees can enroll in or waive insurance policies or adjust their dependents.

P

Paramedical exam

A paramedical exam is a health exam requested by the carrier to evaluate a life insurance applicant’s health and what health classification he or she falls into. The medical exam is performed at no charge to the applicant and can be done at a medical center or at home.

Participating insurance company

A life insurance company that offers its policyholders dividends from the company. Policyholders are “participating” in the company’s earnings. Only policies with investment components are applicable.

Permanent life insurance

A life insurance policy that is active for the entirety of the policyholder’s life. Permanent life insurance policies offer a cash value component that makes them more expensive than term policies and is usually only a good option for people with particular circumstances.

Policyholder

The owner of a life insurance policy. Only the policyholder can make changes to a life insurance contract.

Preferred rates

The price you pay for premiums if you get a Preferred health classification. A preferred life insurance classification gets competitive rates and means you are in good health.

Premium

Your premiums are the payments you make to keep your life insurance policy active. As long as you pay your premiums, your life policy remains "in force" for the policy’s duration.

If you buy a permanent life insurance policy like whole life insurance, your policy premiums keep your coverage in force for life and pay for extra features like a cash value you can access while you're alive. Term life insurance stays in force for a set period (the term), usually 10–30 years, then expires.

Primary beneficiary

The person you designate to receive the life insurance death benefit when you die. If you have multiple beneficiaries, this person is the first to receive the life insurance payout.

Private mortgage insurance

A type of insurance required by mortgage lenders when buying a home if the home buyer put down less than 20% of the home’s value. The charges for this are included with the mortgage payment, and can be cancelled once the homebuyer has paid off the equivalent of 22% of the home’s value.

Q

Quote

The estimated cost for your life insurance coverage based on your health profile. You can use our free life insurance calculator to get a quote based on your background and life insurance needs before you buy coverage.

R

Rating

The health classification an individual receives that determines how much he or she pays for life insurance premiums.

Return of premium rider

A policy add-on that returns the premiums paid by the policyholder if he or she outlives the term of the policy. Adding a return of premium rider can increase the cost of your premiums by around 30%.

Riders

Add-ons to a life insurance policy that create more robust coverage, sometimes at an extra cost. Riders that come at no additional charge can be great supplements to a life insurance policy, while some riders that increase the cost of your premiums may not be necessary. A Policygenius agent can help you determine if a specific rider is a worthwhile consideration.

S

Settlement

The process of paying out a claim on a life insurance policy or distributing assets in an annuity.

Standard risk

An applicant for life insurance who has an average life expectancy.

Substandard risk

An applicant who doesn’t fall into the four life insurance classifications. An individual of substandard risk is insurable but presents additional risk to the insurer due to below-average life expectancy because of health or a smoking habit. A substandard risk rating means higher than normal premiums.

Suicide clause

A provision in most life insurance policies that allows the life insurance company to withhold the death benefit payout if the policyholder dies by suicide within the first year or two of the policy. Suicide is still covered by life insurance — if the insured dies outside of the defined term in the policy’s suicide clause, the insurance company will pay out the death benefit.

Surrender

The act of giving the policy back to the insurance carrier. Surrendering a permanent life insurance policy results in the carrier paying the policyholder any cash value in the policy.

Survivor protection

The primary reason that most people buy life insurance, survivor protection is a financial safety net for the policyholder’s surviving family members.

Survivorship life insurance

A permanent life insurance policy designed to cover a married couple. Survivorship life insurance pays out the death benefit after both policyholders have passed away and is often purchased to protect heirs from paying estate taxes. It is also referred to as “second-to-die insurance.”

T

Term

The period of time a policy is in effect.

For example, a policy could provide coverage of $250,000 for a 15-year term.

Term conversion rider

An add-on included in most policies that allows for the conversion of a term life policy to a permanent life policy at the end of the policy’s term. A term conversion rider enables policyholders to retain life insurance coverage without going through additional underwriting.

Term date

The day the coverage on the policy ends. A 10-year term policy would no longer be in effect 10 years and one day from the "effective date" (the date your policy becomes active).

Term life insurance

A type of life insurance that is in effect for a set number of years, usually anywhere between five to 30 years. Term life insurance is a basic policy with no additional components, such as a cash value, but it is generally the best life insurance policy option for most people due to its lower cost.

Time payment of claims

A provision that requires ongoing claims to be paid no less frequently than once a month.

Trust

A legal entity where you can place your assets to be used by your beneficiaries. A trust ensures that the death benefit of your life insurance policy goes to your intended beneficiaries.

U

Underwriter

The individual that works on behalf of the life insurance company to evaluate your application and issue you a life insurance classification. The underwriter uses your risk of mortality, determined during the underwriting process, to decide how much you pay for your life insurance premiums.

Underwriting

The process by which an insurer determines the risk of insuring a life insurance applicant. The underwriting process evaluates the applicant’s health, medical history, avocations, family health history, and paramedical exam results.

Universal life insurance

A type of permanent life insurance where the policyholder can adjust the premiums if his or her financial situation changes. Universal life insurance policies have a cash value that can earn interest and be used to pay the policy premiums.

V

Variable life insurance

A type of whole life insurance that has a cash value that can build savings over time. Variable life insurance policies tend to have high premiums and are a risky investment vehicle due to the fact that the cash value can be lost to market trends.

Variable-universal life insurance

A type of universal life insurance that has fluctuating premiums and a cash-value component that gains interest. Variable universal life insurance tends to be more expensive than term life insurance and has a lot of additional fees that can eat up the cash value.

Viatical settlement

An agreement in which you sell your life insurance policy to a third party for cash. It's not recommended.

W

Waiting period

The time between the filing of an insurance claim and the payments made on the claim.

Example: Typically, the longer the waiting period on an insurance claim, the cheaper the policy will be for the holder.

Waiver of premium rider

A policy add-on that waives the premiums if the policyholder becomes disabled and cannot work. Once the disability ends, premium payments resume. Qualifying for a waiver of premium rider is usually difficult and the disability must fall within specific parameters.

Whole life insurance

A type of permanent life insurance that has a tax-deferred savings component. Whole life insurance policies are typically 6-10 times more expensive than term life insurance policies, leading to the surrender of 45% of policies within the first ten years of being in force.

Author

Senior Editor & Licensed Life Insurance Expert

Nupur Gambhir

Senior Editor & Licensed Life Insurance Expert

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Nupur Gambhir is a licensed life, health, and disability insurance expert and a former senior editor at Policygenius. Her insurance expertise has been featured in Bloomberg News, Forbes Advisor, CNET, Fortune, Slate, Real Simple, Lifehacker, The Financial Gym, and the end-of-life planning service Cake.

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