Types of life insurance - how should you choose?

3 min read


Life insurance is designed to pay out a lump sum when you die during the term of the policy.

There is no one-size-fits-all category, so different types of life insurance are available to help people have a choice of cover that suits their lifestyle.

Life insurance can require more thought than other types of insurance. For example, when people are looking to insure a car, they mostly want the same thing; to ensure that they are protected financially in the event of an accident and can get back on the road as quickly as possible.

Life insurance works in exactly the same way but, because the impact of losing a loved one can be much more far reaching, there is more to consider.

How does life insurance work?

Life insurance works by paying out a lump sum when you die. You might want it to financially support your family on a daily basis with money to live on, such as day to day living expenses or school fees. Or you might want a lump sum payout to cover an outstanding debt such as a mortgage. Your choice of life insurance will depend on your individual or family circumstances.

Different types of life insurance

Here are some of the decisions you need to make when thinking about which kind of life insurance is right for you:

1. Do I want a single or a joint policy?

It is possible to get insurance that covers one person (a single-life policy) or a joint-life policy for a couple. With a joint-life policy, you can decide if you want it to pay out on the first death (useful for paying off a mortgage or protecting dependants) or the second death (which can help with inheritance planning).

It is tempting, if only one of you earns an income, to decide to insure just that one life, but you should consider the financial implications of a caregiver passing away as well. The financial burden of providing for childcare or care of an elderly relative could be high, so this should be taken into consideration.

If different levels of cover are required – if one partner earns a lot more than the other, for example – it may be more sensible to take out two single-life policies. A broker or financial adviser may be able to help you find the best solution.

2. Term insurance or whole-of-life?

Term insurance will cover your life for the length of the policy, while you pay your monthly premiums. Whole-of-life cover, on the other hand, will pay out whenever you die.

Whole-of-life cover is generally more expensive, particularly if you are in poor health or have a history of medical conditions. It is usually only available through a specialist broker or financial adviser. For some families, it is used as an inheritance-tax planning tool. Inheritance tax (or IHT) is payable at 40 per cent on estates worth more than £325,000.

There are ways to decrease the IHT bill, including passing everything to a spouse and giving away your home to a directly related family member. However, some families know they might still be left with a bill to pay and find it comforting to know that a life insurance payout will cover it.

Term insurance is good when you have a time-limited expense to cover. This could be a repayment mortgage or school fees, since you can take out life insurance that would pay off that debt in the event of your death. There’s more information on this in our guide to life insurance.

3. Which type of term insurance do I need?

If you decide you would like a term insurance policy, there are further decisions to make. You can opt for level, increasing or decreasing cover, which means that the amount your family would receive on your death either stays the same, goes down or goes up.

The most suitable type for you will depend on your expected needs during the period of cover. You could also consider buying a renewable policy, which would allow you to extend the term of the original policy if you need to, when it ends.

Most life insurance policies pay out a tax-free lump sum.

How much life insurance do I need?

If you have a particular debt in mind that you think your family will need to cover if you were to suddenly pass away, then you should insure yourself for this amount. If it is a mortgage, you could consider mortgage protection insurance, which exists for this very purpose, as well as life insurance.

Otherwise, consider your family’s future outgoings, as well as your current income when deciding how much might be sensible. You might want to factor in inflation as well. It is easy to forget how rising prices over time can have an impact on family income needs -  shopping bills, school fees, house prices may rise in future, so your family will need more to live on.

Should the policy be written ‘in trust’?

Life insurance policies can also be written 'in trust'. This means the benefits can be paid direct to whoever you want to receive the payout without it becoming part of your estate. This is useful because your survivors could receive the payout more quickly and it is not subject to inheritance tax.