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How to understand your life insurance policy

Your guide to reading the fine print.

Buying life insurance is an involved process, and chances are, once you’ve signed the dotted line, you know what you’re getting into. But if you have your policy in your hands and still have questions, we can help decipher what you’ve just purchased.

Your life insurance policy is a binding document, and as such it has a lot of legalese, but it’s nothing you can’t handle. Each carrier’s policies will look at little different, so if your policy isn’t in this exact order, that’s okay.

Read on learn more about the key parts of your life insurance policy:

Declarations page

This section goes by a few different names — it’s often also called either policy specifications or schedule of benefits —but the content is the same: this is the executive summary, with all the the important info about you and your policy, including:

  • Name(s) of the insured and the policy owner: This is usually the same person — you — but you could be buying a policy for someone else, in which case you’re the policy owner and they’re the insured
  • Policy type: Either term or permanent
  • Policy number: This makes you official
  • Policy issue date: The date your policy is active, or in force
  • Rate class or premium class: The class the underwriters have put you in based on your medical exam, history, and age
  • Term length: For term insurance, the term of your policy
  • Riders: Any riders you have will be listed here, and then detailed later in the policy

Policy terms and definitions

Also known as general provisions, the policy terms and definitions section of your life insurance contract is devoted to decoding some of the more complicated language that you’ll encounter in your policy.

Here are some of the terms likely to be included:

Death benefit: The amount of money that will be paid out to your beneficiary or beneficiaries upon your death.

Beneficiary: A recipient of your policy’s death benefit. Your beneficiary can be one person, multiple people, or even an organization. You choose who the death benefit goes to, and what percentage of the benefit each beneficiary receives.

Coverage date / Policy date: The date that your policy is considered to be in force, or active. If you die on the effective, then your policy will pay the death benefit.

Insurance age: Your age on your birthday closest to the policy date.

Premium: Amount you pay for your policy.

Non-participating: Means that the policy doesn’t receive in any dividends issued by the insurer.

Learn more about life insurance definitions.

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Coverage details

Also called the insuring agreement, this section puts to use all the terms and definitions from the previous section, summarizing the promises the insurance company is making to you that you’re making to it (namely, how much you’re going to pay them, and how much they’ll pay your beneficiaries in the event of your death).

Premium and payment information

This section lists your premium amounts. For term life policies with level premiums that do not change as you age, this section will include monthly and annual premium amounts. For permanent policies, which act as investment vehicles and may have variable premiums, this section will showcase a table with the premiums over time.

This section also includes info on the grace period — the time you have after your premium due date during which your policy will remain active — and reinstatement terms, which will detail when and how you can reinstate your policy if you let it lapse. This section also usually has exclusions, for example, a suicide exclusion, which notes that the policy won’t pay a death benefit if you commit suicide within two years of the policy issue date.

Ownership and conversion rights

This section details your rights to transfer your policy or convert it to a permanent life policy. The language in this section will let you know what your options are.

Beneficiaries

This section will list out the person, people, or organizations that you’ve chosen to receive your death benefit when you die. It will also outline payment details for your beneficiaries, including whether they can choose a lump sum payment or installments.

Riders

This section details the riders listed on the policy specifications page. Each rider will be fully detailed here, including definitions, exceptions, and guidelines. Here are some common life insurance riders that may be built into your policy or that you may have opted to include:

  • Disability income rider: Replaces your income if you become disabled and cannot work
  • Disability waiver of premium: Waives premiums if you become disabled
  • Term conversion rider: Allows you to convert a term life insurance policy to a permanent policy at the end of the term
  • Acceleration of death benefit rider: Pays out all or a portion of the death benefit if you’re diagnosed with a terminal illness
  • Long-term care rider: Like acceleration of death benefit rider, will pay out all or part of the death benefit to pay for the costs of long-term care services if you’re critically ill
  • Critical illness rider: Pays a lump-sum benefit (subtracted from your death benefit) if you are diagnosed with a covered critical illness.

Learn more about life insurance riders.

Disclaimer: Policygenius’ editorial content is not written by an insurance agent. It’s intended for informational purposes and should not be considered legal or financial advice. Consult a professional to learn what financial products are right for you.

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