Shopping for life insurance can seem overwhelming, but deciding which type of policy you need is actually simple. There are only two main policy categories to choose from: term life insurance and permanent life insurance. Term life insurance (the most popular type of life insurance) lasts for a specific amount of time, while whole life insurance (the most popular type of permanent coverage) lasts your entire life.
Once you decide between term and permanent coverage, you’re already halfway to the finish line. We’ll explain the differences between the two, as well as the term and permanent life insurance options available so you can choose the one that suits you best.
Term life insurance is the simplest and most affordable option for most people.
Whole, universal, and burial life insurance are all types of permanent life insurance.
Some types of permanent life insurance come with a cash value that works like an investment account.
Some life insurance policy types are categorized based on their medical underwriting or lack thereof, such as guaranteed issue life insurance.
Term life insurance
Term life insurance lasts for a set number of years before it expires. You pay premiums toward the policy, and if you die during the term, the insurance company pays a set amount of money, known as the death benefit, to your designated beneficiary. The death benefit can be paid out as a lump sum or an annuity. Most people choose to receive the death benefit as a lump sum to avoid taxes.
Con: length Term life insurance has an expiration date, which can align with a mortgage or when your children graduate college. Those looking for lifelong coverage should opt for permanent life insurance instead.
Who it’s for: most life insurance shoppers Those looking for cheaper life insurance for up to 30 years should buy term life insurance.
Whole life insurance
Whole life insurance is the most popular type of permanent life insurance. It also pays out a death benefit, but unlike term life, most policies have a cash value, an investment-like, tax-deferred savings account, included in the policy.
Pro: cash value & lifelong coverage The cash value component can cover endowments or estate plans. And since this coverage lasts for your entire life, it can help support long-term dependents such as children with disabilities.
Con: cost & complexity A whole life insurance policy can cost 5 to 15 times more than a term life policy for the same death benefit amount, based on Policygenius data. The cash value component makes whole life more complex than term life because of fees, taxes, interest, and other stipulations.
Who it’s for: younger buyers who can pay more People who anticipate lifelong dependents or a need for permanent insurance with minimal complexities can benefit from whole life.
Universal life insurance
There are three types of universal life insurance (UL): indexed universal life insurance (IUL), guaranteed universal life insurance (GUL), and variable universal life insurance (VUL). All have a cash value, just like a whole life insurance policy. Your premiums go toward both the cash value and the death benefit.
Unlike whole life insurance, universal life insurance allows you to decrease (or increase) how much you pay toward premiums (flexible premiums) and allows for adjustable death benefits. If you decrease how much you spend on premiums, the difference is withdrawn from your policy’s cash value.
Indexed universal life insurance
Indexed universal life insurance is the most popular type of UL. The cash value account has a minimum (and maximum) guaranteed interest rate based on a stock market index (like the S&P 500), chosen by the insurer.
- Pro: cash value gains
There’s potential for bigger gains in the cash value account compared to other permanent life insurance policies, depending on stock market performance.
- Con: investment caps
Most insurers set limits on cash value gains. You won’t lose your base cash value, but dedicated investment accounts offer higher returns.
- Who it’s for: portfolio enhancers
If you’ve maxed out other investment accounts or are looking for a relatively safe investment with guaranteed minimum values, IUL might be right for you.
Guaranteed universal life insurance
Guaranteed universal life insurance is universal life insurance without the market risk. Your premiums stay the same regardless of how market indexes perform, as your plan’s interest rates are baked into the premiums when you sign up for the policy. This type of life insurance has a “no-lapse” guarantee, meaning that as long as you pay your premiums, you’ll have coverage.
- Pro: stability
Guaranteed universal life insurance provides lifelong coverage without the market fluctuations of indexed or variable policies.
- Con: no cash guarantee
Unlike some permanent life insurance, GUL doesn’t allow for premium payments from the cash value account. If you skip a premium payment, your policy will lapse.
- Who it’s for: risk-averse people with permanent insurance needs
Guaranteed universal life insurance is a relatively affordable permanent option, sort of like a term life insurance policy where the term lasts the rest of your life.
Variable universal life insurance
Variable universal life insurance has a variable interest rate set by the life insurance company. Cash value is invested in mutual funds that can increase or decrease. It shares elements from universal and variable life insurance policies.
- Pro: cash value gains
There’s a potential to see bigger gains in the cash value account compared to other permanent life insurance policies, depending on your investment choices.
- Con: too hands-on
The policyholder, not the insurance company, manages the investment portfolio. Unlike other types of permanent insurance, you’ll need to manage your own cash value investments or work with your own financial advisor.
- Who it’s for: DIY investors
There’s a big potential upside for policyholders who don’t mind being involved in money management.
Variable life insurance
The money paid into a variable life insurance cash value goes into a series of mutual fund-like sub-accounts where you can get some decent growth, but you can also lose money depending on the market. This type of policy’s cash value is more akin to investing.
While this makes variable life insurance policies a better investment option than whole life insurance policies — with potential for higher, tax-deferred growth — you can only invest in the sub-accounts available through your policy. All of this makes a variable life insurance policy both a limited investment option and a limited coverage option.
Pro: savings potential Similar to variable universal life insurance, policyholders can see greater cash value gains with this type of policy than other permanent products.
Con: high risk for policy lapse Both the cash value and death benefit can fluctuate based on your portfolio's performance.
Who it's for: hands-on investors who don't mind risk For those who want to take control of their own investment portfolio, there's potential for cash gains.
There are two types of burial insurance (also known as final expense life insurance), both of which fall under the whole life insurance category: simplified issue life insurance and guaranteed issue life insurance.
Simplified issue life insurance
- Pro: burial costs
This type of insurance covers the cost of anything associated with your death, including medical care, a funeral, or cremation. It’s useful if you don’t have another way to pay for your funeral and don’t want to burden your family with the costs.
- Con: price & health limitations
If you’re over a certain age, have severe underlying medical conditions, can’t independently fill out the application, or are a smoker, you may not qualify for simplified issue life insurance.
- Who it’s for: seniors without major medical issues
It’s also a good option for adult children looking to purchase life insurance for their aging parents to cover final expenses.
Guaranteed issue life insurance
Guaranteed issue life insurance skips both the medical exam and the health questionnaire. As long as you can pay the premiums and fill out the application with info about your age, sex, and residency, the insurer will cover you. If you can’t answer questions on the application due to advanced dementia or Alzheimer’s, then you wouldn’t qualify for guaranteed issue life insurance.
- Pro: burial costs
Guaranteed issue offers similar benefits to simplified issue policies.
- Con: price
Like other types of final expense life insurance, these policies have higher premiums for relatively low coverage amounts (typically up to $25,000).
- Who it’s for: seniors or people with terminal illnesses
For older people or those with declining health, guaranteed issue life insurance might be the only option available.
Group life insurance policies
Group life insurance is an employee benefit provided by some employers that is a type of term life insurance called annual renewable term. It isn’t technically a type of life insurance, but it’s important to know how it's different from privately purchased life insurance.
Most people think their employer-sponsored life insurance is enough coverage when in most cases it isn’t. Make no mistake: If your employer is offering life insurance at no extra cost to you, it’s a great benefit. By all means, get insured. But if you need life insurance to protect your family, employer-provided coverage usually isn’t sufficient.
How the types of life insurance stack up
How the types of life insurance stack up
|Life insurance type||Duration||Death benefit||Premium||Cash value|
|Term life insurance||10 to 30 years||Fixed||Level*||No|
|Whole life insurance||Life||Fixed||Level||Yes; guaranteed|
|Universal life insurance||Life||Adjustable||Flexible||Yes; guaranteed|
|Variable life insurance||Life||Variable||Level||Yes; not guaranteed|
|Group term life insurance||1 year||Fixed||Level||No|
What type of life insurance is best for you?
Term life insurance policies are usually the best solution for people who need affordable life insurance for a specific period in their life. Permanent life insurance policies, including whole life insurance, are best for people who can pay more and want life insurance that will never expire.
Simplified issue and guaranteed issue life insurance are options for people who might not be able to get insured otherwise because of age or poor health and elderly consumers who don’t want to burden their families with burial costs.
You should always speak to a licensed independent broker, like Policygenius, or a financial advisor to determine the best insurance company and policy for you. They can help you weigh the pros and cons of each type of coverage and buy the right type of insurance for your needs.
Frequently asked questions
What types of life insurance are there?
The two main categories of life insurance are term life insurance (which lasts for a set term) and permanent life insurance (which never expires). Whole, universal, indexed universal, variable, and burial insurance are all types of permanent life insurance. Permanent life insurance typically comes with a cash value and has higher premiums.
Which type of life insurance policy combines insurance and investing?
The cash value of permanent life insurance policies can be used to save or invest. But because cash value policies have more expensive premiums, limited investment options, and offer relatively low rates of return, they’re not a great primary savings vehicle.
What kind of life insurance should I get?
The right life insurance policy for you depends on your financial situation and your dependents. Term life insurance is the best choice for most people because it’s more affordable, but whole life insurance makes sense for people who need lifelong coverage or those looking for insurance with a cash value.
What is the most common type of life insurance?
The most common term length for term life insurance is 20 years, according to Policygenius data. Whole life insurance is the most popular type of permanent life insurance.