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What Is Universal Life Insurance?

Updated: November 2019

Universal life insurance is a type of permanent life insurance. With a universal life policy, the insured person is covered for the duration of their life as long as they pay premiums and fulfill any other requirements of their policy to maintain coverage. Like many permanent life policies, universal life insurance combines a savings component (called "cash value") with lifelong protection. When you pass away, the policy's death benefit is paid out to your beneficiaries.

Read on to learn more about the benefits of universal life insurance.

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What Are the Benefits of Universal Life Insurance?

Beyond lifelong protection, there are a few additional features of universal life insurance:

  • You can withdraw money or borrow against the policy's cash value.
  • Your cash value earns interest.
  • You have flexibility with premiums.
  • You can adjust the death benefit.

Withdraw Money or Borrow Against It
When you pay your premium on a universal life insurance policy, a portion of each payment goes toward paying for the death benefit. Another portion also goes to building up the policy's cash value. Over time, after money has accumulated, you may be able to withdraw or borrow against the cash value of the policy (the available amount will vary by company)1. The rules on how and when you can do this vary by insurance company and policy. However, it's important to know that this may reduce your death benefit, create a tax implication or even cause your policy to lapse.

Earn Interest on Your Policy's Cash Value
The cash value of a universal life policy generally earns interest that's in line with current money market rates, says the Insurance Information Institute (III). Of course, it's important to note that the interest rate will fluctuate along with the market, which means the interest you receive may also go down. But, some companies offer protection against that with a minimum performance guarantee on the policy.

Flexibility With Premiums
If the cash value of your account can cover the costs, you may have the ability to lower or stop paying your premiums on a universal life policy for a certain amount of time, the III says.

This can be helpful if money becomes tight and you're looking for ways to lower monthly bills. But, there can be negative consequences, too, says the III. For instance, your coverage may end if you use up the account's cash value to pay for premiums.

Keep in mind that you must continue paying premiums to keep your policy in force. If you don't pay your premiums, your policy will lapse (meaning you no longer have coverage). If you can't pay a premium on time, your insurer may offer a grace period — a specified amount of time in which you have to make up a missed payment before coverage lapses. Read your policy or check with your agent for more information.

Adjust the Policy's Death Benefit
The flexibility of a universal life policy also extends to the death benefit. At some point, you may want to increase the amount that's paid out upon your death. This is something some insurance companies allow, as long as you pass a medical exam, says the III2,3. Likewise, you might choose to reduce the death benefit, to reduce the cost of the policy. Remember that if you increase the policy's death benefit, it may increase the premium you pay.

What Is the Difference Between Universal Life Insurance and Whole Life Insurance?

With a universal life insurance policy, you may be able to adjust your premiums and death benefit over time to suit your needs. With a whole life insurance policy, the premiums and death benefit are fixed for the duration of the policy.

Benefit Whole Life Insurance Universal Life Insurance
Lifelong protection, as long as premiums are paid Yes Yes (if the policy has net surrender value)
Cash value Yes (increases at a predetermined schedule) Yes
Interest on cash value N/A In line with current money market rates
Premiums Fixed Flexible
Death Benefit Fixed Flexible

Who Might Choose Universal Life Insurance?

The III offers some guidelines on how to decide whether permanent life insurance like universal life is right for you:

If you're looking for coverage that lasts your entire life.
If you keep up with your policy's premiums, universal life pays a death benefit to your beneficiaries no matter when you pass away.

You have long-term savings goals.
If you want to build tax-deferred savings and don't expect to tap into the funds for a long time, universal life may be a suitable option for you, the III says. The cash value option that's part of a universal life policy may be available for you to withdraw or borrow against in an emergency.

It's a good idea to talk with a local insurance agent to better understand your life insurance options. They can help you review your personal situation and long-term goals to help you choose a policy that's a good choice for you and your family.

Related Resources:

Life insurance offered through Allstate Life Insurance Company and Allstate Assurance Co., 3075 Sanders Road, Northbrook IL 60062; American Heritage Life Insurance Co., 1776 American Heritage Life Drive, Jacksonville FL 32224. In New York, life insurance offered through Allstate Life Insurance Co. of New York, Hauppauge NY.

1Loans or partial withdrawals can reduce the policy's cash value and death benefit, can increase the possibility of policy lapse, and may result in a tax liability. Consult a tax advisor for additional information on the tax treatment of loans or withdrawals from a life insurance policy.

2Increases in benefits are subject to underwriting approval. Changes to benefits can have income tax consequences. Consult a tax advisor for additional information.

3Increases to the death benefit require underwriter approval, which means the insured may need a new medical exam. Changes to the death benefit can also have income tax consequences. Consult a tax advisor for additional information.

Please note that Allstate or its agents and representatives cannot give legal or tax advice. The brief discussion of taxes on this page may not be complete or current. The laws and regulations are complex and subject to change. For complete details consult your attorney or tax advisor.

Securities offered by Personal Financial Representatives through Allstate Financial Services, LLC (LSA Securities in LA and PA). Registered Broker-Dealer. Member FINRA and SIPC. Main Office: 2920 South 84th St., Lincoln, NE 68506, 877-525-5727. Life insurance issued by Allstate Life Insurance Company, Home Office, Northbrook, IL; Allstate Assurance Company, Northbrook, IL. In New York, Allstate Life Insurance Company of New York, Hauppauge, NY. Check the background of this firm on FINRA's BrokerCheck website.

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