What Is Whole Life Insurance and Who Should Buy It?


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ByMandy Sleight
Edited byRae Osborn
ByMandy Sleight
Edited byRae Osborn

Updated: May 22, 2024

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Whole life insurance is a type of permanent life insurance policy that offers coverage for your entire life. Unlike term life insurance, it includes an investment component, allowing the cash value to grow over time. Policyholders benefit from fixed premiums, guaranteed death benefits and the ability to borrow against the policy's cash value. It provides financial security and flexibility, making it a valuable tool for long-term planning.

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Key Takeaways

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Whole life insurance offers a level premium and death benefit for the rest of your life with a built-in savings account.

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Whole life is an excellent choice for those doing long-term estate planning, supporting a lifelong dependent or owning their own business.

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If you decide you no longer need your whole life policy, you can surrender it and keep the cash value amount.

How Does Whole Life Insurance Work?

Whole life insurance, also known as "straight life" or "ordinary life," combines life insurance with a savings component, offering fixed premiums, a set death benefit and cash value. This cash value, or surrender value, sets it apart from term life insurance, as it gets paid out if the policy is canceled.

Being permanent, whole life insurance policies remain active for your entire life or until a specified age (usually 100 to 121), provided premiums are paid. After deducting insurance costs, the insurer places the whole life insurance premiums into your cash value account. Though more expensive than term life, people seeking guaranteed lifetime coverage can use whole life insurance as an investment.

This type of insurance offers:

  • Fixed Premiums: Unchanging, regardless of age, health or inflation.
  • Face Value Death Benefits: If whole life insurance premiums are paid on time, and no outstanding policy loans exist, beneficiaries receive the policy's face amount, tax-free, upon your death.
  • Tax-Free Cash Value Growth: The savings part of your whole life insurance policy grows annually without taxation. You can access it via loans and withdrawals, but loans against the cash value reduce the death benefit if not repaid, and interest is charged to make up the difference.

Whole life insurance's blend of lifelong coverage, fixed costs and accessible savings makes it a valuable financial tool for long-term planning and estate management.

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How Much Does Whole Life Insurance Cost?

Whole life insurance premiums are generally higher than those for term life insurance. Still, whole life coverage offers the advantage of fixed, unchanging payments and a cash value component. Term life only provides coverage for a specified period without these additional features, typically resulting in lower premiums.

The cost of whole life insurance varies widely based on several personal factors:

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    Age

    Generally, the younger you are when purchasing a policy, the lower premiums may be. Age plays a significant role as insurers assess the risk associated with insuring an individual over a lifetime.

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    Health

    Your overall health condition can impact whole life insurance premiums. A healthy individual will likely pay less than someone with existing health issues.

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    Coverage Amount

    The death benefit amount you choose directly affects your costs. A higher coverage amount means higher premiums.

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    Gender

    Statistically, women tend to live longer than men, which can result in slightly lower whole life insurance premiums for female policyholders.

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    Lifestyle Choices

    Habits like smoking or engaging in high-risk activities can lead to higher premiums.

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    Policy Features

    Additional features or riders attached to the policy can also influence the cost.

Consider consulting with a financial professional to understand the specific costs based on your needs and preferences, ensuring the policy aligns with your long-term financial goals.

Types of Whole Life Insurance

Whole life insurance is categorized into participating and non-participating policies. Participating policies allow policyholders to receive dividends, sharing in the insurer's profits, while non-participating policies do not, providing a fixed return without the potential for profit sharing. Below are eight variations you can choose from depending on your unique needs and policy goals.

1
Guaranteed Issue Whole Life

Though it’s often the most expensive form of whole life insurance, guaranteed issue is sometimes the only option for people with severe health conditions. There are no health questions or medical exams to complete, and acceptance is guaranteed.

2
Simplified Issue Whole Life

This whole life insurance policy requires a few health questions to answer but no medical exam to complete. If you have certain pre-existing conditions, this final expense whole life insurance policy is cheaper than guaranteed issue whole life.

3
Non-Participating Whole Life

Non-participating whole life insurance policies don't pay dividends to the policyholder. Dividends are the money the company has left over from collected premiums after overhead expenses and claims are paid. Your whole life insurance company will set the fixed premium, death benefit and cash value when you purchase the policy — these amounts will not change for the policy's duration.

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Participating Whole Life

Simply put, participating whole life insurance is the opposite of a non-participating policy. When the company does well in terms of investment earnings, mortality and expense costs, you'll receive dividends in cash, reduced premium payments, accumulated interest or additional paid-up insurance. Dividends come from a mutual life insurance provider, so seek out a mutual insurer if this is important to you.

5
Indeterminate Premium Whole Life

This type of whole life insurance is similar to non-participating whole life, except it offers adjustable premiums. You'll be charged a premium based on the insurance company's investment earnings, mortality and expense costs. If those numbers change, your premium will be adjusted accordingly but will never exceed the maximum premium stated in your policy.

6
Economatic Whole Life

Economatic whole life insurance combines participating whole life and supplemental coverage — usually decreasing term life and paid-up additional insurance — through dividends.

7
Limited Payment Whole Life

Under a limited payment policy, you can pay premiums over a shorter period but still get lifetime coverage. However, because you'll be making fewer payments, these amounts will be higher than you typically pay under a continuous premium plan. Cash value will continue to accrue even after the whole life insurance premiums are paid up.

8
Single Premium Whole Life

As the name suggests, a single premium policy means you'll only pay one large premium at the time of policy inception. After that, the policy is considered fully paid, and no further payments are required. However, many companies will enforce substantial charges if you wish to cash in the policy during the first few years.

Comparing Whole and Term Life Insurance

Term life insurance and whole life insurance are two prominent options for life coverage, each serving different needs and financial goals. Here's a comparison to help you understand the key differences between the two coverage types:

  • Duration: Term life provides coverage for a set period (usually 10, 20 or 30 years). It is suited for specific needs like child-rearing or mortgage payments. Whole life offers lifelong protection.
  • Cost: Term life is generally more affordable, with potential premium increases at renewal. Whole life costs more due to lifelong coverage and additional features.
  • Cash Value: Term life does not include a cash value component. Whole life builds cash value, growing over time.
  • Financial Goals: Term life suits short-term needs and immediate coverage. Whole life is ideal for long-term financial security and estate planning.

If you're looking for affordable coverage for a specific time frame, term life may be suitable. If permanent protection, fixed premiums and a savings component align with your long-term planning goals, whole life insurance might be the better option.

Pros and Cons of Whole Life Insurance

Whole life insurance is an excellent option for many people with long-term financial needs. However, while it's the right option for some individuals, it's not for everyone. Learn more about the pros and cons of whole life insurance below.

Pros of Whole Life Insurance

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    Coverage for Your Entire Life

    Whole life insurance covers you for your entire life — or until age 100 or 121 — as long as you continue to pay the premiums on time. Even if you let your policy lapse, you'll still have access to its cash value as long as the policy wasn't drawing from the investment to cover premium payments.

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    Continuing Death Benefit

    With whole life insurance, your heirs will inherit the value of your policy tax-free, no matter how long you live.

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    Riders Can Make Some Funds Available While You’re Alive

    You can include a rider in the policy that will let you start drawing part of the death benefit for long-term care needs. This has an advantage over a long-term care policy, which has a waiting period for receiving benefits.

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    Ability to Borrow Against Your Policy

    You can borrow against your policy tax-free, up to the amount of the cash value.

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    Straightforward Coverage

    You know precisely what you get with whole life insurance: a locked-in premium, fixed interest rate on your cash value and terms that don’t change.

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    Guaranteed Maximum Expenses and Guaranteed Minimum Interest Rate

    There is a guaranteed maximum on the expenses your insurance company can charge you and a guaranteed minimum interest rate on your cash value growth.

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    Flexibility if Your Financial Situation Changes

    If you can’t pay your premiums due to financial hardships, you can use your cash value to cover payments and maintain your policy.

Cons of Whole Life Insurance

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    Expensive Premiums

    Whole life is much more costly than term life and usually more expensive than universal life insurance.

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    Takes a Significant Time to Accumulate Value

    Whole life is a long-term investment; it can take years to build up your cash value. If you stop making payments due to financial difficulties in the first few years of your policy, its surrender value will be little or nothing. It can take decades of payments before the benefits of whole life significantly outweigh the benefits of term life plus alternative investment options.

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    Surrender Charges Can Be Expensive

    There is a surrender period, usually during the first few years, which means you'll have to pay a surrender charge if you want to withdraw your cash value during this time.

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    Can Only Borrow Once You Meet Minimum Balance Requirements

    To take out a loan against your policy, a minimum balance is typically required (usually around $10,000) and you must have had your policy for a specified amount of time (usually at least five years).

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    Difficult to Hold Providers Accountable

    Despite disclosure regulations, insurance companies are not required to disclose management fees, rate of return, sales commissions and how much of your premium goes toward your savings component.

Should You Buy Whole Life Insurance?

If you're looking for a financial tool that offers lifelong coverage and a savings component, whole life insurance might be right for you. For example, if you're interested in estate planning and want to ensure financial security for your family, whole life insurance can provide a stable foundation, fixed premiums and the ability to grow cash value over time.

Below is a closer look at the different types of people and situations that may be suited for whole life coverage.

Those Interested in Estate Planning

Let's say you have a pension plan and have accumulated assets that can generate income after you die. If your estate's net value is more than the set exempt amount at the time of your death, it will be subject to estate tax. A whole life insurance plan can help your beneficiaries pay for these taxes.

Those Supporting a Lifelong Dependent

Dependents may need significant financial support to cover medical bills and everyday expenses after a parent's death. Whole life insurance policies are guaranteed to pay out upon the policyholder's death and grow a cash value account at a guaranteed interest rate, which is available for quick liquidity.

Those Who Anticipate a Need for Long-Term Care

One of the most attractive features of whole life policies is the option to add long-term care. Adding this coverage allows you to access some or all of your policy’s death benefit to pay for long-term care costs not covered by health insurance while you’re still alive. Keep in mind that prices, terms and conditions vary by insurer.

Those Looking for Additional Tax-Free Investment Opportunities

The cash value of whole life insurance grows tax-free. If you've already maxed out on other investment options, such as 401(k)s and individual retirement arrangements, the cash value benefit plus dividends of a whole life insurance plan are excellent additions to your retirement and investment nest egg. Additionally, you can withdraw or take out a tax-free loan with whole life insurance.

Business Owners

As a business owner, whole life insurance can protect your business's financial stability. It can be used for succession planning, key person insurance or even as collateral for business loans, making it a versatile financial tool for your enterprise.

If deciding to invest in this type of policy, obtaining multiple quotes from reputable whole life insurance companies is a wise first step. Comparing these whole life insurance quotes can help you identify the best whole life insurance policy that combines affordability with the comprehensive coverage you need. Exploring options for affordable whole life insurance can also ensure you find a policy that fits your budget while providing the lifelong protection and financial benefits essential for your peace of mind.

FAQ: Whole Life Insurance

Buying whole insurance is meant to be a lifelong decision. Don’t commit to whole life insurance without first finding answers to all your questions. MoneyGeek included some of the most commonly asked whole life insurance questions below to help you decide if this coverage is right for you.

What is whole life insurance?
How does whole life insurance work?
What does whole life insurance cover?
Should I buy whole life insurance?
Is whole life insurance a good investment?
What are the benefits of whole life insurance?
How do you get whole life insurance?
How long do you pay for whole life insurance?
What kind of premium does a whole life policy have?
What types of riders can I add to whole life insurance policies?
Does whole life insurance have a cash value?
Can I cash out of a whole life insurance policy?
When is the face amount of a whole life policy paid?
Does a whole life insurance policy mature?
Is whole life insurance worth it?
What is the best whole life insurance?
Should I buy term vs. permanent life insurance?

About Mandy Sleight


Mandy Sleight headshot

Mandy Sleight is a licensed property, casualty, life and health insurance agent with 20 years of experience in the industry. She has worked for major insurance companies like State Farm and Nationwide, and most recently as the Operations Coordinator for a startup employee benefits company.

Sleight holds a business administration and management degree from the University of Baltimore and a master's in business administration from Southern New Hampshire University. She uses her vast knowledge of insurance and personal finance to create easy-to-understand and engaging content to help readers make smarter choices with their budgets and finances.