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The safety net of life insurance

You work hard to provide a good life for your family, and you'd do anything to protect them.

But what would happen to them financially if you died tomorrow?

If the answer troubles you, then you need life insurance. Life insurance provides a safety net tomorrow for the loved ones who depend on you today.

But where to start? There are two main types of coverage are available -- term life and permanent life insurance.

Term vs. permanent life insurance

Term life insurance covers you for a certain period, such as 10, 15 or 20 years. Buyers typically choose a policy that covers them until their mortgages and other debts are paid off, or the kids have graduated from college and are living independently. Term life is fairly straightforward, compared to permanent life, and it's less expensive than a permanent life policy. The average cost of a 20-year, $250,000 term life policy for a healthy 30-year-old is about $150 a year, roughly the cost of one latte per week, according to LIMRA and the LIFE Foundation.

A term life policy pays out if you die during the term while the coverage is in effect. Then your beneficiary collects the proceeds, called the "death benefit." You can't cash in the policy while you're still alive. With term life you risk buying something that your family might never end up using, but in return you gain the peace of mind knowing they'd be OK if you died unexpectedly.

Permanent life insurance, such as whole life or universal life, covers you for the rest of your life. The policy pays the death benefit to your beneficiary whether you die tomorrow or in 50 years.

Permanent life insurance also includes an investment component, known as "cash value." The cash value of the policy starts off small and then gradually grows tax-free. If you hold onto the policy for many years, the cash account becomes a nest egg. You can borrow from the cash value -- the policy stays in effect as long as you repay the money, plus interest -- or surrender the policy for the cash. Read more about cash value life insurance.

Because of its cash value and lifelong coverage, permanent life insurance is pricier and more complex than term life. Some policies even provide long-term care benefits.

Which type should you buy?

Choose term life insurance if you:

  • Need only temporary coverage.
  • Have no dependents who will need financial help for the rest of their lives.
  • Don't own a family business or have a large estate to protect.
Choose permanent life insurance if you:
  • Want to provide for lifelong dependents, such as a child with special needs.
  • Need to protect a large estate or family business from estate taxes.
  • Want to leave a legacy.Want to provide loved ones with money for your final expenses, such as medical bills and funeral costs, no matter when you die.

How much to buy

Beware of easy formulas, such as multiplying your annual income by a certain number. Instead, do a thorough needs analysis.Determine how much your family would need to pay your final expenses, such as funeral costs, and how much your loved ones would need over the long haul to maintain their quality of life. Consider big expenses, such as paying off the mortgage and other debts, and funding your children's college educations.

Both parents should be insured -- not just the primary breadwinner. To determine the amount of insurance for a stay-at-home parent, consider how much it would cost to replace the services that parent provides, such as day care.

Don't assume your group life insurance through work will provide all the coverage you need. Most group life policies are small, and the coverage ends when your job ends. Roughly four in 10 insured married people depend solely on group life policies, according to LIMRA, a life insurance industry trade group.

Life insurance rates

Life insurance premiums vary according to the type of policy, amount of coverage and the insurer, as well as your age and health.

That's why it's important to buy coverage now. The longer you wait, the higher the premiums will be and the greater the risk that you could develop a health condition and not qualify for coverage. Here are 10 ways to save money on life insurance. Besides comparing policies, evaluate insurance companies. Insure.com's Insurance Company Ratings Lookup tool provides financial strength ratings from Standard & Poor's.

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