What is Traditional Life Insurance?

Traditional life insurance, also called whole life, provides coverage for your entire life, with a guaranteed amount for your survivors, at a premium that remains the same. You also build up "cash value" with such a policy, an amount you can borrow against if you need money for some emergency. It once was the most common type of life insurance and has retained its appeal for many people because of its simplicity.

Premiums Are Averaged

You can buy traditional life insurance at any age, but the younger you are when you buy it the lower the premiums will be. Insurance premiums increase with age, but whole life rates are leveled out, so you actually pay a bit higher in younger years but proportionately less as you age so the premium doesn't change.

Cash Value

What does change in traditional life insurance is the cash value. This builds up each year you have the policy. The death benefit doesn't change, however. Say you bought a $100,000 policy 10 years ago. You now have perhaps $10,000 in cash value. Technically, your premium now buys you only $90,000 of insurance, but the cash value is added to the insurance at death so the benefit remains $100,000.

Cash Value Benefits

An advantage of cash value is that you can borrow against it if you need cash for an emergency. The loan amount will be deducted from the death benefit if you die before it's paid back. Your cash value can actually grow to equal or exceed the face value of the policy, but that usually happens only at the policy's maturity date which likely is age 95 or 100. If that happens, your beneficiaries will get the full amount of the cash value, which may be more than the policy total.

Dividend Options

Some traditional whole life policies also offer dividends, returns on investments made by the insurance company. Not all policies contain this option, and even those that do usually do not guarantee dividends, because investment income can vary from year to year. Any policy dividends aren't taxable as income, because they're considered a refund of your premiums.