Universal life insurance is a type of permanent life insurance designed to provide lifetime coverage. Unlike whole life insurance, universal life insurance policies are flexible and may allow you to raise or lower your premium payment or coverage amounts throughout your lifetime. Additionally, due to its lifetime coverage, universal life typically has higher premium payments than term.
2)The lack of cash flow flexibility is troubling in that the largest assumption driving my analysis is that I am able to continue paying the premiums and keeping my policy current. If I want to take time off for travel (which is a near-term goal) or lose my job before this becomes self-funding, the policy can lapse and I would get only the cash surrender value at what is most likely a loss depending on timing
Thanks Jason! Your question is a good one, and the truth is that it really depends on the specifics of your situation. What are your college savings goals? What does the policy look like now? What is it expected to look like when you need the money? What other funds do you already have in place? I’m not asking you to answer those questions here, just want to give you a sense of the kinds of things I would consider.
One point I would like to counter is the idea that whole life “is insurance that CANNOT BE TAKEN AWAY”. It can be taken away if you are not able to keep up with your premium payments, which is pretty common given that people’s lives and financial situations are constantly changing. With some policies, the premium can even go up depending on the performance of the policy, forcing you to pay more than expected if you want to keep the coverage in place. So it’s not quite as simple as saying that the death benefit is a sure thing.

One other point. You emphasize the “tax free” nature of whole life here. I feel like I was pretty clear about that in the post and would be interested to hear your thoughts. Just blindly calling it “tax free” ignores the presence of interest (on your own money, by the way) which over extended periods of time can actually be more detrimental than taxes.

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Holly, I just turned seventy years old and retired and constantly looking and applying for jobs because my monthly income is only 1,206.00. I am divorce for only twenty eight years and have a learning disabled adult son who has never work. I need a life insurance policy to be around $30,000 to cover funeral expenses and some money for my son to cope. What life insurance company should I chose and should I chose term or whole life? I would greatly appreciate your response. I have no savings. Thank you. Diahann Cambridge

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Death benefits are generally received income tax-free by your beneficiaries. In the case of permanent life insurance policies, cash values accumulate on an income tax-deferred basis. That means you would not have to pay income tax on any of the policy’s earnings as long as the policy remains in effect. In addition, most policy loans and withdrawals are not taxable (although withdrawals and loans will reduce the cash value and death benefit).2
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A Roth IRA certainly gives you a lot more investment options, with the added benefit of not starting with an account balance of essentially $0. It’s important to understand though that there are always risks involved with investing, and you could lose money within a Roth IRA too. Still, while I don’t know the specifics of your situation it will generally be a good idea to go with something like a Roth IRA before considering any kind of life insurance.

It is not a valid argument to me to say that the “administrative pain in the ass” is a reason to ignore the tactic. It’s a pretty simple procedure and certainly not worth paying all the extra costs of a whole life approach just to avoid. Yes, you have to be careful if you have Traditional IRAs, but there are ways around that too. No, it’s not for everyone, but I would much rather try to make the backdoor Roth work first than immediately jump to whole life.
As for your question, USAA is a fantastic company and I would happily recommend them for many things, like auto, home, and umbrella insurance. With that said, I have never reviewed one of their whole life insurance policies and therefore can’t really comment on that specifically. I will say that I would be careful about taking that 4.5% return at face value, as I describe in the post. I would encourage you to run the numbers for yourself to see what it really comes out to.
“In the policy that was attempted to be sold to me, the “guaranteed return” was stated as 4%. But when I actually ran the numbers, using their own growth chart for the guaranteed portion of my cash value, after 40 years the annual return only amounted to 0.74%. There are a number of explanations for this difference, including fees and the way in which the interest rate is applied.” 

Regarding pension vs registered accounts: It is hard to know what is better, relying on your pension or relying on an individually held mutual fund account (or some variation thereof using other securities). This would require a close reading of the pension and securities legislation in your region. For us in Canada, a defined benefit pension (prescribed benefits upon retirement based on a formula where the employer is responsible for funding any shortfall) can be incredibly enticing due to the guarantees attached to them. It is the preferred pension and stacks up really well against defined contribution pensions (where employers match the contributions of employees to at least a certain degree and where the account grows until retirement and the pensioner draws down the account and is burdened with any shortfall) but defined benefit plans are going the way of the dodo over here. It’s still available to government employees but most private employers don’t want to take on the risk of having to meet funding requirements. That’s a huge liability on the balance sheet. In any case, pensions have a few benefits over individual savings vehicles. First, they benefit from reduced management fee pricing, thereby improving returns marginally over the course of fund accumulation. Second, they benefit from a longer investment horizon since they are always looking many years in the future as their pension liabilities are long-term by definition. Third, actuaries are required to evaluate pensions regularly to make sure funding targets are established and followed.
With whole life insurance, you can’t just decide to stop paying premiums. Well, you can, but if you do then the policy lapses and you’re forced to withdraw the cash value, which will subject you to taxes and possibly a surrender charge. And if you haven’t had the policy in place for multiple decades, you will also be left with meager, and possibly negative, returns.
Moreover, with hindsight, because I suspect that the conversion options in the term policies, as I look into them, won’t prove all that attractive, I am thinking that it would have been optimum to have had universal or whole life coverage for closer to 20% of our aggregate, total original insurance coverage, rather than 10%. Still, while I am pretty satisfied that my prior decision-making was close to right, I do wonder if you see this all very differently.
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A very good article. Congruent to the philosophy in which our company was built: Buy Term, Invest the Difference. I am a crusader at heart and I am peeved every time I see these products in the hands of people who can barely afford it and whose life will be completely damaged for merely owning it because they are grossly under-insured when they could have well purchase a proper term amount for the time they need it.
I think that post does a good job of showing how the illustrated (non-guaranteed) return from a whole life insurance policy is comparable to one of the most conservative types of traditional investments you can make IF you end up keeping the policy for 30 years. Of course, that conservative traditional investment doesn’t have most of the other downsides discussed here AND doesn’t require you to hold it for 30 years to see a reasonable return. And, of course, you are allowed to put your money into other, less conservative investments outside of a life insurance policy, some of which may even have special tax advantages (401(k), IRA, HSA, 529, etc.).

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We were sold a whole life policy from Mass Mutual for my husband, but we also have term insurance on both of us. We are on a 10 year track to pay off the policy and have three years left. Is it still a “bad investment” once the policy is paid off? Should we be expecting those 0.74% yearly returns for a fully paid-off policy? Or does that apply only if one is paying premiums on it for the next 30+ years? Whole life insurance appealed to me because I am extremely squeamish about the stock market and don’t want to pay a financial planner on a regular basis. I’d rather have low (but not 0.74%), steady returns than high risk/high reward investments. Did we still make a mistake by buying whole life?
I, 22 year old male, can pay ~$13,000 into a universal life policy throughout the next 20 years (~$650/yr, ~55/mo), never touch it again, and that will provide a death benefit of $100,000 until I’m at least 75 years old (I will put more money in of course since I plan on living past 75). That’s also a flexible premium policy with one of the most financially stable companies, so I would say that’s a good investment for my future children/grandchildren. Maybe not for myself, but at least my premiums won’t be more than $100/month when I’m old, assuming I still have excellent health and am insurable. With term I can get it insanely cheap now, but what about when I’m 50-60 and closing in on retirement? My premiums would hopefully be under $200/mo. at that point assuming I have excellent health or guaranteed insurability.

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Term life insurance is very simple. You pay a (typically) small premium for financial protection that lasts a specific amount of time, typically 10-30 years. It is pure insurance. The only potential benefit is the payout upon death. And in my opinion, this is the only type of life insurance that most people should consider, since the financial protection provided by the death benefit is the entire purpose of life insurance.

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To be completely honest, I didn’t go into more detail about the things you talk about here because I don’t personally believe it’s relevant for the vast majority of the population, and certainly not for my audience. I am aware that if you have a certain level of income and net worth, an overfunded policy may be a good decision for you, which is why I even mention it at all. But for most people, even an overfunded policy would represent far too big a percentage of their overall asset allocation to make sense. You’d get into the lack of diversification issue, so it’s just not worth it.

Good question. My first response is that if you’re looking for pure life insurance protection, it’s likely that term insurance will be a better product for you than whole life. It can depend on exactly what kind of protection you need, but that’s generally the case. Second, I have an entire series on life insurance that will help you figure out how much you need, and it does factor in inflation. Here’s the link: New Parent’s Guide to Life Insurance.
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Here is my analagy of the whole life deal. I am 53 the whole life minimum quaranty is 4%. if the guaranty says I pay $8,000 a year for 15 years and stop making payments I’ve paid $120,000. if this policy is for $400,000 then I have that policy to leave as a legacy for my 2 children tax free. If the past gains from the last 30 years happen then I would pay $120,000 for $550,000 of legacy that is also at this time tax free. That would be closer to $700,000 to the kids. I am going to price term for 30 years at my age but have a feeling its pricey but probably less than $8,000 per year. Thoughts from a young person?
It depends on the type of policy and the agent’s contract level with the insurance company. A Medicare insurance broker may have different commission levels with different insurance companies as well. A large Medicare insurance broker who has been in the market for a number of years is not likely to care about small differences. Here at Boomer Benefits, we enroll our clients in the insurance plan that is right for them regardless.
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Add to this, when a younger person owns whole life (or cash value fixed universal life) they have the life insurance coverage they need, are building a tax free bond portfolio for the future (which as most people realize is what older investors shift into as the age) but also have a accumulation vehicle that can “self complete” if they become disabled. 401k’s can’t provide this…they don’t even match the long term return of the do nothing stock markets because of the fee’s they charge. That is to say…there is no “alpha”


The insurance company calculates the policy prices (premiums) at a level sufficient to fund claims, cover administrative costs, and provide a profit. The cost of insurance is determined using mortality tables calculated by actuaries. Mortality tables are statistically based tables showing expected annual mortality rates of people at different ages. Put simply, people are more likely to die as they get older and the mortality tables enable the insurance companies to calculate the risk and increase premiums with age accordingly. Such estimates can be important in taxation regulation.[10][11]
An insurance company may inadvertently find that its insureds may not be as risk-averse as they might otherwise be (since, by definition, the insured has transferred the risk to the insurer), a concept known as moral hazard. This 'insulates' many from the true costs of living with risk, negating measures that can mitigate or adapt to risk and leading some to describe insurance schemes as potentially maladaptive.[51] To reduce their own financial exposure, insurance companies have contractual clauses that mitigate their obligation to provide coverage if the insured engages in behavior that grossly magnifies their risk of loss or liability.[citation needed]
However, there may be areas where your pension doesn’t stack up to individual plans. For example you can leave your individual account to a beneficiary but that may not be possible with your pension. Also, survivor benefits may be insufficient or altogether absent. The nice thing about transferring your pension to an individual account today is that with interest rates at all-time lows, the amount the pension has to provide you on exit (the commuted value) is inflated to reflect the larger pool of capital required to fund your retirement years. This means you can leave with a bigger pool of dough than you could in an era where interest rates were much higher and so if things turn around and we find ourselves in a rising rate environment with improved fixed income opportunities, you can make out like a bandit. Of course, things could slide into negative interest rate territory and you could be left years left to live and no cash to live it on.
Now, it turns out that we have higher, broader family obligations than I anticipated 20-27 years ago. My wife and I plan to possibly keep working past 65 (which I hadn’t anticipated) and would like to be able to fund these obligations even if we were to die before our now planned time to stop working (that goes past the periods anticipated by the terms of our term policies). Our term policies and term coverage are beginning to expire and due to certain issues, at best, we would have to pay very high premiums for anything I would try to purchase now, if we would qualify at all.
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4) Tax diversification. To mitigate tax consequences in retirement, you will want to be taking distributions from vehicles that are taxed differently. A diversification of these tax treated products is very important. 401(k) gets taxed as income, investment accounts pay capital gains tax, and life insurance is distributed tax free. A mixture of these three mitigate your tax consequences.

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