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If your family relies on your income, life insurance is an important part of planning for your family’s future. And while no one likes to plan for their death, a little discomfort now can save your family a world of financial stress if you die unexpectedly.

Term life insurance is a type of life insurance that only lasts for a certain period of time — or the term — and does not come with any supplemental features, like a cash value. This no-frills coverage keeps costs low, but there are many other types of life insurance policies for people who are looking for extra coverage. Because of its low rates, compared to other types of life insurance, term life is a popular life insurance choice. For a relatively low monthly cost, term life insurance pays a cash benefit to your beneficiaries if you die, so your loved ones can maintain their standard of living and pay for any outstanding financial obligations, like a mortgage.

Key Takeaways

  • Term life insurance is inexpensive, as low as $11 per month for a $100,000 benefit.
  • Term life insurance policies work by paying a benefit to beneficiaries if the insured person dies during the policy term.
  • Paid policy benefits may be used for any purpose. Often, funds cover funeral expenses, debts such as mortgages and provide relief from lost income.
  • Age and smoking status have a significant impact on term life insurance rates.
  • A medical exam may be required before a term life insurance policy is issued.

How does term life insurance work?

When you buy a term life policy, an insurance company promises that it will pay your beneficiaries a set amount if you die during the policy’s term, which can be anywhere from 10 to 40 years. In exchange, you pay a monthly premium to the company for the term’s duration.

If you outlive your policy term, your insurance coverage ends and you must buy another policy if you still need life insurance. However, some insurance companies will let you convert your policy into a whole life insurance policy before it expires.

Unlike permanent life insurance, term life insurance doesn’t come with a cash value component and coverage only stays active for a set period of time, or the term — but that’s what keeps costs low. And just because it doesn’t last a lifetime doesn’t mean term life insurance doesn’t offer adequate protection. 

Cameron Ellis, assistant professor in the Department of Finance at the University of Iowa Tippie College of Business, emphasizes that people getting a term life policy should understand that these policies often stretch over decades.

“Make sure you will be able to afford your premiums for the length of the policy you are buying,” Ellis said.   

What does term life insurance cover?

Typically, the death benefit is used to cover funeral expenses, debts, mortgage or replace lost income of the insured party; however, the death benefit can be used by beneficiaries in any way they choose.

However, you should carefully choose your beneficiaries. Pick the person or persons who you can trust to use the life insurance death benefit appropriately. Additionally, if certain money should be allocated to specific financial obligations — such as paying off the mortgage or college tuition for children — this should be specified in a will. 

Types of term life insurance

There are several kinds of term life insurance policies:  

  • Level premium: Your premium stays the same for the duration of the policy’s term. Many term life policies give you the option to renew your coverage at the end of the term, but your premiums may rise annually after the level term period – often substantially.
  • No-medical-exam: A type of term life insurance that offers the same robust coverage, but doesn’t require a medical exam during the application process. 
  • Annual renewable term: This gives you coverage for one year with the option of renewing it each year for a specified duration, such as 20 years. With this policy, your rates go up every year.
  • Return of premium: Return of premium term life insurance pays you back your premiums if you outlive your term life policy. However, you can expect to pay at least 50% more on premiums for these policies.
  • Decreasing term: You pay the same premium for the duration of the policy, but the death benefit decreases every year. 

How to choose the right term life insurance policy

Most people need a level premium term life insurance policy. It’s simple, and provides the most bang for your buck.

How much term life insurance you need depends on your debts, financial needs, dependents’ needs – and how long you have those responsibilities. When will your dependents reach financial independence? What are your major debts, such as mortgages or student loans? When must they be paid off? 

Your policy’s coverage amount and term length should match these financial obligations. For example, if you have a $250,000 mortgage left that lasts another 20 years, you should think about $250,000 in coverage and a 20-year policy. Consider all of your financial obligations when purchasing a policy. 

Additionally, you should take the following steps to get the right term life insurance policy for you:

  • Shop around: Life insurance quotes vary considerably among insurers. Compare quotes from at least three insurers so that you get the best possible price. 
  • Be truthful: Answer all application questions accurately. Not only does this help you get the right policy for your needs, it also ensures your policy isn’t canceled later on. 
  • Sweat the fine print: An insurance policy is a legal document. Read it carefully and make sure that you understand it before signing anything.

How much does term life insurance cost?

The price of term life insurance varies depending on your age, health and lifestyle choices, but policies tend to be cheaper than most people expect. A majority of Americans overestimate how much life insurance costs by three-fold, according to LIMRA.

Life insurance gets more expensive every year you age. It also gets more expensive if you have risky lifestyle choices, such as smoking. For that reason you should get life insurance as soon as possible.

Ellis advises that it’s a good idea to get life insurance as soon as someone else depends on your income. 

“If one spouse is ‘stay at home,’ I would still recommend they purchase some life insurance. Even though there is no lost income, replacing the lost childcare and domestic duties can be very expensive,” Ellis adds.

How to shop for term life insurance

  1. Use our life insurance calculator to figure out how much coverage you should get: The life insurance calculator takes into account your funeral costs, mortgage, income and debt to give you a clear estimate of the ideal amount of life insurance coverage.
  2. Choose the right life insurance company for your needs: maintains a list of the best life insurance companies, making choosing a reputable insurer easier.
  3. Choose the length and coverage amount of the policy: The most common term lengths include 10, 20 and 30 years, while the coverage amount should equal the amount you want your beneficiaries to receive if you die.
  4. Sign your policy papers and pay your first premium: After you sign your policy and pay the first premium, your policy is active. 

– Les Masterson contributed to this report.

Frequently asked questions

Does term life insurance have a cash value? 

Term life insurance is often less expensive than permanent life insurance policies – but unlike permanent life insurance, there is no cash value component. Term-life insurance only has a death benefit.

How long is term life insurance?

Term life insurance covers you for a set period, usually 10, 15, 20, or 30 years. Some insurers also offer coverage for up to 40 years.

What happens if I outlive my term life insurance?

If you outlive your term life insurance policy, the coverage will expire, but you can convert it to a permanent life insurance policy if you still need coverage.

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Nupur Gambhir
Managing Editor


Nupur Gambhir is a content editor and licensed life, health, and disability insurance expert. She has extensive experience bringing brands to life and has built award-nominated campaigns for travel and tech. Her insurance expertise has been featured in Bloomberg News, Forbes Advisor, CNET, Fortune, Slate, Real Simple, Lifehacker, The Financial Gym, and the end-of-life planning service.