To put it simply, life insurance protects those who depend on your paycheck. If you die prematurely, life insurance provides your dependents with ongoing income to replace yours, until (or unless) they can live comfortably without it. It can also provide a timely emergency fund for medical, legal, and funeral costs should family savings not be adequate to cover them. (After all, that golf-inspired Fairway to Heaven casket ain't cheap.)
Life insurance is not a good way to strike it rich for "pennies on the dollar." It's not the surest way to leave a life of luxury for future generations of your clan. In fact, even though some life insurance policies are combined with a savings plan (in "cash value" policies), the savings plan is essentially independent. The life insurance component of these cash value policies retains its fundamental purpose: income protection for your dependents after you join that great hokey-pokey in the sky.
So, should I get some?
Given this simple definition of life insurance, it should be easy to decide whether you need it. Start by imagining yourself gone tomorrow. (We know, it's morbid, but bear with us.) What would the impact be? And could we have your CDs?
Could your family afford the funeral expenses? Have you left a complicated will, or perhaps no will at all? More importantly, what about your spouse, children, and other dependents? Are they counting on your paycheck in the years ahead to cover basic needs and/or future savings goals? If you are the primary caregiver to dependents, what will it cost to replace you with a paid provider, and for how long?
If you are single, or one half of a two-income, no-dependents household, you probably won't need much life insurance, if any. With a little planning, you can establish a low-risk savings fund to cover funeral costs, and invest the money you would have paid for insurance premiums. You may also want to obtain coverage that will pay the estate taxes on a huge estate so heirs don't have to liquidate assets at unfavorable prices to pay them. If you are right now (or think you will be) a successful investor, then you may be a prime candidate for such life insurance. These issues can get complicated, and may be best left to a discussion with an estate planning attorney.
On the other end of the spectrum, if you are the sole breadwinner for a large family with little savings, you are likely to need substantial life insurance. After basic food and housing is covered, life insurance premiums are likely to be next in line in terms of priority, perhaps even ahead of auto loan and credit card payments, and certainly ahead of retirement savings (not to mention satin Elvis bed sheets and Beanie Undies).
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This article was originally published in June 2006. It has been updated. The Fool has a disclosure policy.