What is life insurance and how does it work?

What is life insurance and how does it work
What is life insurance and how does it work

What is life insurance?

Life insurance is a product designed to protect your loved ones’ finances should you pass away (or be diagnosed with a terminal illness) during the term of the policy. It’s there to ensure that an already difficult time needn’t be made more so with the added financial burden that could ensue from a loss of income, and it needn’t cost that much to arrange this kind of cover. Read on to find out more about life insurance, how it works, and how you can find a policy that’s right for you. 


How does life insurance work?

In a nutshell, you have to pay a premium (usually monthly) to the insurance provider for the duration of your policy, and on your death your beneficiaries will receive a payout (provided you die within the specified term, in the case of term assurance policies; see below). 

The amount of cover you’ll receive, and the premiums you’ll have to pay, will depend entirely on your individual circumstances and the kind of policy you choose. Your life insurance quote will take into account your medical history, age and lifestyle factors, and typically speaking, the younger and healthier you are, the cheaper your quote will be.

What are the three main types of life insurance?

There are three main types of life insurance to consider, each with slightly different features: term assurance, whole of life, and family income benefit policies. Let’s take a look at each in turn. 

Term assurance policies

Term life insurance is the most basic type of cover. It lets you specify how much cover you want and how long you want to be covered for – if you die within that term, the policy will pay out, but if you don’t, the policy will come to and end and you won’t get your premiums back. Within this broad kind of cover, there are three different types: level term (which pays out a lump sum when you die, with the amount you’re covered for remaining the same throughout the term), decreasing term (wherein the payout decreases over the term of the policy, making it particularly suitable for a capital and interest repayment mortgage), and increasing term (the amount of cover increases over the term, usually in line with inflation). In many cases, a combination of cover options may be the most suitable. 

Whole of life policies

These policies are exactly as they sound – policies that provide cover for your whole life and that pay out on your death, no matter when that may be. Because of this guaranteed payout, whole of life policies are more expensive than term assurance policies, which only have to pay out if you die during a certain time period. 

Family income benefit policies

This is a type of decreasing term life insurance that pays out a regular monthly income to your beneficiaries, rather than a lump sum. The payments continue until the policy’s expiry date, provided you die within the term. 


Which providers offer life insurance?

There are a whole range of providers offering life insurance these days, from high street banks (such as HSBC Life Insurance) to well-known insurers (Aviva Life Insurance and Legal and General Life Insurance, to name but two) and even more niche providers. All will offer different levels of cover and prices accordingly, so as with anything, make sure to compare quotes to find the best life insurance policy for your needs.

Should I get a single or joint life insurance policy? 

In any of the above broad categories, there are also joint and single life policies to choose from, a decision that any couple will need to carefully consider. Single life policies cover one person only, with any payout going to the estate. Joint policies, however, cover both parties, and will either pay out on the death of the first partner (first-death policies, which are typically used to provide a lump sum to cover the mortgage) or the second (second-death policies, which can be used to cover an inheritance tax bill). First-death policies are usually more common, however, and can mean that the surviving partner is left without insurance (unless they take out a new policy, which could be more expensive as they’ll likely be a lot older than when they first arranged cover).

This is just one reason why many people opt for two single-life policies, rather than a joint one, as this can often provide far better value. Not only that, but single life policies offer more flexibility with any payout distributed to the estate under the terms of the will, rather than going directly to the surviving spouse. Then there’s the fact that if both partners die within the policy term, there’ll be two payouts to loved ones. Premiums need not be any more expensive than having a joint-life policy, either, so it could be worth considering. 


Why might life insurance not pay out? 

The most common reason for a life insurance policy not paying out is non-disclosure – i.e. you weren’t completely honest when taking out the policy. This is typically related to undisclosed pre-existing medical conditions (such as you had cancer but didn’t tell the provider) or lifestyle choices, such as substance misuse or smoking. 

If you missed a premium payment, your policy may also expire and therefore not pay out on death, and some policies have a “waiting period” – typically seen in over-50s life insurance – whereby if you die within the first 12-24 months, the policy won’t pay (though your premiums will be refunded). Likewise, if there are certain exclusions listed in your policy, then it won’t pay out, and if you’ve got a term assurance policy that expires, your death after this time won’t result in a payment.  

That said, life insurance providers aren’t looking for reasons not to pay – and in fact, over 99% of all claims are paid.


Do I really need life insurance? 

While it isn’t a legal requirement to have a life insurance policy – though it’s likely that a mortgage provider will recommend you have one before they’ll grant you the loan (see more below) – it’s often recommended to invest in a suitable policy, for the simple reason that you’ll have peace of mind that your loved ones’ finances will be protected after your death. 

However, if you’re a mortgage-holder, it’s even more important to have a policy in place. A mortgage will probably be the biggest financial commitment you ever make, with it not uncommon to owe hundreds of thousands of pounds to your lender. Could your family afford to cover that kind of sum if they didn’t have your income? If not, life insurance is essential, as if they couldn’t keep up with the repayments, there’s the chance they’d have to sell the property to repay the debt. Having life insurance for a mortgage prevents this from happening. You can find out more about this kind of policy in our guide 'Do you need life insurance to get a mortgage?'.

That said, if you don’t have a partner, children or any dependents – or if their income wouldn’t be impacted should you die – it may not be worth getting cover. It’s all about your individual circumstances. 

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