What is joint life insurance & how does it work?

Joint life insurance is a single policy that covers two people for one premium. Bundling two policies into one can be used for estate planning or covering a spouse who doesn’t qualify for their own policy.

Amanda Shih author photoKatherine Murbach Policygenius

By

Amanda Shih

Amanda Shih

Editor & Licensed Life Insurance Expert

Amanda Shih is a licensed life, disability, and health insurance expert and a former editor at Policygenius, where she covered life insurance and disability insurance. Her expertise has appeared in Slate, Lifehacker, Little Spoon, and J.D. Power.

&Katherine Murbach

Katherine Murbach

Associate Editor & Licensed Life Insurance Expert

Katherine Murbach is an associate editor and a licensed life insurance expert at Policygenius. Previously, she wrote about life and disability insurance for 1752 Financial, and advised over 1,500 clients on their life insurance policies as a sales associate.

Edited byAntonio Ruiz-Camacho

Antonio Ruiz-Camacho

Associate Content Director

Antonio helps lead our life insurance and disability insurance editorial team at Policygenius. Previously, he was a senior director of content at Bankrate and CreditCards.com, as well as a principal writer covering personal finance at CNET.

Updated|6 min read

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What is a joint life insurance policy?

Joint life insurance is a life insurance policy that covers two people. A joint policy serves the same basic purpose as other types of life insurance: It provides your loved ones with financial support if you pass away. 

Most joint life insurance policies are permanent life insurance policies, which last your entire life and have an investment-like cash value feature that earns interest. Joint term life insurance policies, which expire after a set period, do exist but are less common.

There are two main types of joint life insurance policies:

  • First-to-die life insurance

  • Second-to-die life insurance

How do joint life insurance policies work?

While the two types of joint life insurance work in slightly different ways and serve different needs, one thing both have in common is that there’s some kind of financial relationship between the two parties.

Most commonly, the joint policyholders are married or domestic partners, but they can also be business partners.

First-to-die life insurance

In first-to-die life insurance, the policy pays out after the first of the two insureds dies. The first-to-die option is rare but may work for people with:

  • Expenses supported by one spouse

  • Large debts, like a mortgage

  • Young families

  • A small business ran with a partner

First-to-die life insurance is the most similar to an individual life insurance policy. It helps the surviving policyholder cover expenses after the loss of financial support. 

First-to-die life insurance policies are also similar to individual life policies in that once the insurance company pays out the death benefit, the policy is no longer in force.

If your surviving spouse still wants life insurance, for example, they’ll need to apply for a new policy. They'll likely pay more than they would have earlier, too, because we all become more expensive to insure as we age.

Second-to-die life insurance

A second-to-die life insurance policy, typically called a survivorship policy, pays out the death benefit once both policyholders die.

Second-to-die policies are best for couples who intend for the policy proceeds to go toward estate planning purposes, such as:

  • Covering estate taxes

  • Leaving a nest egg for their heirs

  • Paying inheritance taxes

Because there can be a long period between the first policyholder’s death and when the death benefit is paid, second-to-die life insurance works best as a windfall to a dependent. It does not provide any income replacement for your partner. 

Unlike a first-to-die policy, the surviving spouse in a second-to-die life insurance contract is still responsible for paying the premiums after the other policyholder dies.

→ Read more about how life insurance works

The pros and cons of getting a joint life insurance policy

There are pros and cons to using a joint life insurance policy for your spouse or partner. In most cases, however, it will be more cost effective to purchase two individual life insurance policies. 

Joint life insurance works best in specific situations. Here are some scenarios in which joint life insurance might be the right fit:

  • As part of a buy-sell agreement between two business partners, joint life insurance can help ensure the continuation of the business if one of them should pass away. In this case, the surviving partner can use the death benefit to assist with business expenses.

  • People with significant assets can use survivorship life insurance as part of their estate planning strategy. A second-to-die policy can help them organize and conserve their inheritance.

But, in most cases, for the average couple, the disadvantages outweigh the benefits of a joint life insurance policy:

  • You won’t save if one spouse has health concerns. If one spouse has a medical condition or is significantly older than the other, you may pay higher premiums for a joint policy than you would separately.

  • It takes longer to get the death benefit. If your policy only pays out after you and your spouse die, your beneficiaries could wait years to receive insurance proceeds.

  • Cash value isn’t the best investment. Though you or your spouse can use your cash value while you're alive, the rate of return is lower than in a traditional investment account.

  • Joint life insurance complicates divorce proceedings. Though some providers offer a rider that will split a joint policy in the event of a divorce, a shared policy still adds complexity to the negotiations.

  • One spouse may need to buy their own policy anyway. If one spouse still needs coverage after the other passes away, they’ll need to buy a new policy, which will cost more due to changes in age or health.

  • Permanent policies cost more than term policies. Permanent insurance premiums are up to 15 times higher than term life premiums. Two individual term life policies usually cost less than one joint permanent policy.

Separate life insurance policies are best for the majority of people, but if you’re not sure, speaking with a financial planner or insurance professional can help you determine which type of life insurance is best for you.

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Who should get joint life insurance?

Joint life insurance might be the best option for couples who can’t afford or qualify for two individual whole life insurance policies — whole is a type of permanent life insurance best suited for high earners or people with long-term financial obligations.

Joint life insurance is less common because most couples find individual policies easier to manage. But a joint policy might make sense for you if:

  • Buying two individual permanent policies is out of your budget.

  • One spouse may have difficulty qualifying for coverage alone.

  • The policy’s cash value is part of your retirement plan.

  • You have a lifelong dependent.

  • You plan to leave an inheritance for your children.

If you’re considering joint life insurance, it’s best to work with an independent insurance agent and certified financial planner to weigh the options for your circumstances.

At Policygenius, our licensed experts can answer your questions every step of the way, handle paperwork, and help you secure the whole life policy that's right for your family.

→ Read more about life insurance for spouses 

Do you have to be married to get joint life insurance?

You don’t have to be legally married to buy a joint life insurance policy. If you’re in a domestic partnership or even a business partnership, you could qualify, as long as the two parties involved are financially dependent on one another. Insurance companies call this concept insurable interest.

Can married couples get joint life insurance?

Yes, you can get joint life insurance policies as a married couple. Most married couples, however, will benefit most from buying individual life insurance policies. 

If you're buying life insurance with your spouse, usually there will be two options: you can each purchase separate policies, or you can buy joint life insurance. 

If you have permanent dependents, want to leave an inheritance for your heirs, or one spouse has difficulty qualifying for a separate policy, you might consider joint life insurance.

Should newlyweds get joint life insurance?

Joint life insurance is not the best coverage solution for couples who just got married due to its complexity, limitations, and cost. For most people, including newlyweds, the simplest and most affordable coverage will be individual term life insurance.

Term policies can ensure that you and your spouse are both covered for as long as you need it, ideally until retirement. Term life insurance policies usually last up to 40 years, which is long enough to provide financial coverage for a family with different kinds of financial obligations, like a mortgage or college tuition for children. 

If your main concerns about buying two separate policies are whether one spouse will qualify, or whether you’ll have to pay high premiums, a spousal rider may be a better choice. This is an add-on that ensures you’ll receive a death benefit if your spouse dies. It can be added to most life insurance policies to provide a small amount of coverage. 

If you think joint life insurance is right for you, speak with a licensed professional before making a decision.

How do joint life insurance policies differ from individual policies?

Joint life insurance policies cover two people under one policy, while an individual policy covers just one insured. They’re most often permanent policies, which are five to 15 times more expensive than term policies to begin with. 

If you run a business with a partner and are looking to add a life insurance policy to your buy-sell agreement, joint life insurance might be a fit for you.

In this scenario, joint policies can help ensure a smooth transition of business ownership if one or both partners die — however, it’s generally best to speak with a lawyer and  financial planner regarding your business succession plan. 

If you’re otherwise looking to protect your income for your spouse or family, an individual policy is likely the best fit. Individual policies are intended to replace income of the insured, so in most cases, it makes sense that each person has insurance that’s proportional to their individual earning potential.

How to buy joint life insurance

If you're seeking coverage for two people, it’s best to speak with a licensed agent to determine which kind of life insurance will be best for your needs. Policygenius has non-commissioned advisors that can recommend the best product for you based on your financial protection goals. 

The application process is similar to traditional policies — each person applying for coverage will take a medical exam and wait for underwriting, which is when the insurance company reviews their health history to determine the joint rate.

Below is one of our partners that offer joint life policies.

Prudential

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3.4

AM Best rating 

A.M. Best is a global credit rating agency that scores the financial strength of insurance companies on a scale from A++ (Superior) to D (Poor).

A+

Cost 

Using a mix of internal and external rate data, we grade the cost of each insurance company's premiums on a scale from least expensive ($) to most expensive ($$$$$).

$

$

$

$

$

No-med-exam option

All 50 states

Why we chose it

With nearly four million policyholders and 150 years to its name, Prudential offers competitive coverage options for seniors, as well as people with some of the most common medical conditions, including asthma, depression, and fibromyalgia.

Read our full Prudential review
Pros and cons

Pros

  • High financial ratings

  • Competitive underwriting for a range of medical conditions

  • Comprehensive online resources

Cons

  • High premiums

  • Mixed customer ratings

Prudential is a reputable company that offers a second-to-die policy option with a no-lapse guarantee. You can get approved with this policy even if one of the two people applying may not qualify for an individual policy. Prudential’s survivorship policy also offers lower rates than other similar products on the market.

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Joint vs. survivorship life insurance

Joint life insurance often refers to first-to-die policies, which are meant to provide protection for one of the insured partners while the first one passes away.

Survivorship life insurance, on the other hand, is meant for estate planning purposes — the death benefit only pays out to the beneficiary once both parties die.

If you don’t have a significant estate to leave behind, survivorship life insurance is likely not a good fit for you. 

→ Read more about other life insurance wealth planning strategies

Other types of permanent life insurance

Frequently asked questions

Is joint life insurance a term or whole policy?

Joint life insurance policies are typically permanent policies, like whole life.

Should I get joint life insurance or individual life insurance?

Most people should get individual life insurance policies, which are cheaper and easier to manage.

Can you get a joint term life insurance policy?

Joint term life insurance policies are rare. You can also get a rider on a term policy that effectively insures another person — these policy add-ons are usually called spousal riders or other insured riders.

Can a life insurance policy be jointly owned?

Yes — some life insurance policies can cover two people to be insured.

When does joint life insurance make sense?

Joint life insurance might make sense for you if one spouse doesn’t qualify for an individual policy, or when you need permanent life insurance coverage for long-term coverage or estate planning reasons.

Authors

Editor & Licensed Life Insurance Expert

Amanda Shih

Editor & Licensed Life Insurance Expert

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Amanda Shih is a licensed life, disability, and health insurance expert and a former editor at Policygenius, where she covered life insurance and disability insurance. Her expertise has appeared in Slate, Lifehacker, Little Spoon, and J.D. Power.

Associate Editor & Licensed Life Insurance Expert

Katherine Murbach

Associate Editor & Licensed Life Insurance Expert

gray twitter icon linkgray linkedin icon link

Katherine Murbach is an associate editor and a licensed life insurance expert at Policygenius. Previously, she wrote about life and disability insurance for 1752 Financial, and advised over 1,500 clients on their life insurance policies as a sales associate.

Editor

Associate Content Director

Antonio Ruiz-Camacho

Associate Content Director

gray twitter icon linkgray linkedin icon link

Antonio helps lead our life insurance and disability insurance editorial team at Policygenius. Previously, he was a senior director of content at Bankrate and CreditCards.com, as well as a principal writer covering personal finance at CNET.

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