Updated 08 June 2022
Life insurance protects your loved ones financially in the event of your death – or alternatively, gives you protection in the event of someone else’s death, if you rely on that person financially. An expert life insurance adviser can help you choose the best products for your circumstances, so you cover yourself to the right level of risk and don't waste money on unsuitable policies.
Here you can find out about the different kinds of life insurance, the various reasons you might want (or need) to have it, and how to choose the right life insurance products for you.
Life insurance is an insurance policy that pays out a lump sum on the death of the person insured. Sometimes the insurance will only pay out if the death takes place before a specified age (a term life policy) but you can take out insurance that will pay out whenever the death takes place (whole-of-life policy).
If your family would struggle financially in the event of your death, a financial adviser may recommend life insurance. The same applies if you depend financially (either partly or wholly) on another family member, such as your spouse. A married or cohabiting couple might take out a joint life insurance policy, to cover the surviving partner if the other one dies.
Technically, life insurance is not compulsory when you buy a home with a mortgage, as the lender can recover the mortgage from the sale of the property. However, if you are living with a partner and/or dependants, you will not want them to be made homeless by the enforced sale of the house. For this reason, if you have a family you should consider life insurance essential when you take out a mortgage.
There are so many different types of life insurance. If you’re asking yourself ‘what life insurance do I need?’, here’s a helpful run through of the main policies – of which there is quite a long list.
A term life policy covers you for a set period of time, so will only pay out if you die before a certain age. For example, you may want the cover to last until the end of your working life. Or until your children reach adulthood, meaning they are less likely to be dependent on you.
As the name suggests, within increasing term life insurance, the pay out and premiums go up the older you get. It’s designed to increase in line with inflation, so that sum that you want your loved ones to receive retains its value in real terms.
Decreasing is the opposite – your pay out shrinks the older you get. These policies are often linked to a big loan like a mortgage, and the sum decreases as the outstanding debt decreases.
With level term insurance, your premiums stay the same throughout your policy. It doesn’t matter if you die after five years or 30 years – the pay out stays the same.
Whole-of-life policies pay on your death, whenever that may be. As this means a definite pay out at some point, premiums will be higher than for a term life policy, and you will need to keep paying them until your death. This means that you might in theory pay more in premiums than would be paid out on your death, if you live a long time. However, one popular use for a whole-of-life policy is to cover an inheritance tax bill.
Joint life insurance is one policy that covers two people – usually you and a partner or spouse. It only pays out once and is often used when people are taking out a joint mortgage to make sure the surviving person isn’t left to pay off the entire mortgage on their own. Similarly, it can be used to protect business partners and the business. Sometimes, it’s simply cheaper than taking out two separate policies.
You can choose between a pay out on the first death or the second death. People who opt for the latter often want the pay out to go to their children or other beneficiaries.
Over 50s cover, often called funeral plans, is a way to leave a gift to loved ones when you die. They’re usually used to prepare for your funeral costs. You can take a plan out when you’re over 50 and pay premiums each month. The pay out will depend on the plan you choose and the numbers of premiums you’ve paid.
This insurance gives you peace of mind that you’ll be able to cope financially if you become critically ill or injured and can no longer work. If this happens, you’ll usually be paid a tax-free lump sum, which people tend to use to pay off the mortgage or replace lost income. Check each policy wording carefully, because only specified illnesses and injuries are covered.
Terminal illness cover is slightly different from critical illness protection. It lets you receive the benefit of your life insurance if you become terminally ill and you have been told that you will pass away within a certain time. It’s often an add-on to other life insurance policies, like whole-of-life cover.
A few insurers offer these attractive policies, which are free of charge and pay out to your children – but they normally only last a year and have a £15,000 pay out. The idea is to take out a policy for each of your children (usually for those under four) as immediate protection while you consider your longer-term life insurance plans.
You can use a whole-of-life insurance policy to cover any inheritance tax (IHT) that may be payable on your death. One of the common problems of IHT is that it often needs to be paid before the money in the estate is released – and your beneficiaries may not have enough accessible money to spare.
A solution used by some people is to set up a life insurance policy specifically to cover the IHT bill. Please note that the policy has to be set up to pay into a trust that is outside your estate, so that the pay-out itself will not be taxed and can be used to pay HMRC. If the policy does not pay into a trust, then the pay-out itself will be subject to IHT!
It’s fairly simple to take out a life insurance policy. You can compare policies on price comparison sites and take one out online, as you would for car insurance for example. And if you want to change your policy, it’s usually possible to amend it or cancel it and move to another provider.
Just be aware that there may be fees to cancel (known as a surrender value). The cover you need really depends on your circumstances and that of your family, so it’s worthwhile speaking to a financial adviser before taking out a policy to make sure it’s well suited to your needs and financial situation.
You can buy life insurance that covers someone else (such as a parent), for example if they don’t feel confident doing it themselves. However, you must of course have that person’s signed consent to be insured in that way.
You must also be able to demonstrate ‘insurable interest’ in that person. This means showing that their death would have a negative impact on your finances. If you don’t depend in any way on that person for your financial security, you won’t be able to get life cover on them. This is to ensure that a person cannot benefit financially from another person’s death.
In short, you can insure your spouse, or a parent / other relative who supports you financially, but you are unlikely to be able to insure your children (unless they earn an income on which you depend, e.g. from acting).
If you run a business, you’ll know that some members of staff are essential to your operations and very hard to replace. These are known as ‘key persons’. Many businesses that recognise these key persons will take out special life insurance to cover them in the case of death or incapacity. Find out more about key person insurance.
The cost of life insurance varies significantly based on factors such as your age, state of health and lifestyle (such as whether or not you are a smoker). It will also vary from provider to provider – and of course based on what size of pay-out you want.
However, it is possible to give a rough estimate. For example, if you are a 30 year-old non-smoker, and you want a term-life policy limited to 30 years, paying out £100,000 if you die within that time, your monthly premium would be in the region of £6. Mortgage life insurance would be somewhat cheaper, as the mortgage balance would reduce over time.
A qualified IFA who specialises in life insurance can be by far the best way to find the right policy for you, and the most affordable one too. Price comparison sites are an increasingly popular way to buy insurance of all kinds, but with life insurance it is advisable to take a little more care. The loss of a close family member is one of the biggest upheavals a person can face, and is the worst possible time for any financial insecurity or uncertainty.
Furthermore, sometimes it can be difficult to find affordable life cover or critical illness insurance, particularly if you have pre-existing conditions. This example demonstrates how insurance providers can effectively close their doors to those considered to be high-risk, but how personal financial advice can overcome these obstacles and provide access to affordable advice.
To ensure that your life insurance is fully suited to your needs, it is best to include it as part of your overall financial plan – which your financial adviser can help you to put together.
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