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How Does Life Insurance Works?

At its core, life insurance is a contractual agreement between an individual — known as the ‘policyholder’ — and an insurance company. The fundamental premise is simple yet profound; the policyholder pays regular premiums and in return the insurance company commits to providing a tax-free lump sum, known as the death benefit, to the designated beneficiaries upon the demise of the policyholder. This financial cushion is designed to mitigate the economic impact of the policyholder’s death and ensure the well-being and financial stability of their surviving family members.

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   Estimated reading time: 2 minutes

Life insurance is not a one-size-fits-all solution; instead, it offers a diverse range of types to cater to the varied needs and preferences of individuals. The two primary categories are Term Life insurance and Whole Life insurance. Term Life insurance provides coverage for a specified term, usually ranging from 5 to 30 years, while Whole Life insurance, including Universal Life insurance, spans the individual’s entire life. The choice between these types depends on factors such as financial goals, family structure, and the duration of coverage.

Elements of Life Insurance

A life insurance policy consists of two primary elements: a death benefit and a premium. While both Term Life insurance and permanent (Whole) life insurance share these components, it is the latter that includes an additional cash value aspect.

Death Benefit:

The death benefit, also known as the ‘face value’, is the sum of money guaranteed by the insurance company to the beneficiaries specified in the policy upon the insured’s death. For instance, a parent might be the insured, and the beneficiaries could be their children. The insured determines the desired death benefits based on the estimated future needs of the beneficiaries. Before approval, the insurance company assesses factors like insurable interest and the proposed insured’s qualifications and underwriting requirements related to age, health, and any risky activities the proposed insured engages in.


Premiums are payments made by the policyholder to maintain the insurance coverage. The insurer commits to paying the death benefit if the policyholder meets the premium obligations, and the premium amount is influenced by the likelihood of the insurer having to pay the death benefit based on the insured’s life expectancy. Factors affecting life expectancy include age, gender, medical history, occupational hazards, and high-risk habits. A portion of the premium also covers the operating expenses of the insurance company. Premiums are higher for policies with larger death benefits and higher-risk individuals and permanent policies that accumulate cash value..

Cash Value:

The cash value component in permanent (Whole) life insurance serves dual purposes. It acts as a savings account accessible to the policyholder during the insured’s lifetime, with cash accumulating on a tax-deferred basis. 

Some policies may impose restrictions on withdrawals depending on the purpose. For example, the policyholder might take a loan against the cash value and incur interest on the loan principal. The cash value can be utilised to pay premiums or purchase additional insurance. Importantly, the cash value is a living benefit that remains with the insurance company upon the insured’s death. Any outstanding loans against the cash value will reduce the policy’s death benefits.


The policyholder is the individual who initiates an insurance policy either for themselves or someone else. While the policyholder and the insured are often the same person, and the insured could be someone different, like a spouse or child. As the policyholder, you have ownership of the policy, allowing you to make adjustments to your coverage, add riders, choose beneficiaries, and importantly, you are responsible for paying the premiums.

Application Process: 

Embarking on the journey of life insurance begins with the application process. During underwriting, the insurance company rigorously evaluates the applicant’s risk profile. This involves disclosing a range of personal and medical details and, in certain instances, undergoing a thorough medical examination. The underwriting process plays a pivotal role in determining two crucial aspects – the premium amount and the acceptance of the application. The premium, or the cost of maintaining the policy, is influenced by factors such as the type of policy, coverage amount, age, and the health condition of the individual.

Premium Payments: 

Premiums are the lifeblood of an insurance policy. Policyholders are obligated to make regular premium payments to keep their policy active. The amount of the premium is determined during the underwriting process and is influenced by a variety of factors. In the case of Term Life insurance, premiums are often lower, providing an accessible entry point for coverage. On the other hand, permanent life insurance typically demands higher but more consistent premium payments throughout the policyholder’s life.

Death Benefit Payout:

The culmination of a life insurance policy is the death benefit payout. This tax-free sum is the financial safeguard that the policyholder has diligently contributed towards throughout the life of the policy. The death benefits serve as a versatile financial resource for beneficiaries, offering flexibility in covering a myriad of expenses that may arise after the policyholder’s demise. From funeral costs and outstanding debts to daily living expenses and future financial needs, the death benefits provide a safety net that ensures the continued financial well-being of the surviving family members.

Factors Impacting Premiums

The determination of premiums is a complex process influenced by a multitude of factors. These factors not only play a crucial role in shaping the cost of the policy but also reflect the risk profile of the individual. Some key factors impacting premiums include:

Age: Age is a significant determinant in the calculation of premiums. Generally, younger individuals are deemed to be at lower risk, resulting in lower premiums. As age advances, the risk of mortality increases, leading to higher premium costs.

Health Conditions: The health of the individual is a pivotal factor. Applicants with pre-existing health conditions may face higher premiums or, in some cases, may be subject to exclusions.

Type of Policy: The type of life insurance policy chosen also influences the premium amount. Term Life insurance, with its temporary coverage, often comes with lower initial premiums compared to permanent life insurance policies.

Coverage Amount: The amount of coverage, or the ‘death benefit’, directly impacts the premium. Higher coverage amounts entail higher premiums, reflecting the increased financial risk for the insurance company.

Lifestyle Factors: Certain lifestyle choices, such as smoking or engaging in high-risk activities, can contribute to elevated premiums. Individuals with healthier lifestyles may benefit from lower premium costs.

Benefits of Life Insurance

While the primary function of life insurance is to provide death benefits, modern life insurance policies often come with additional features known as living benefits. These features offer policyholders the opportunity to access a portion of their death benefits while they are still alive and under specific circumstances. 

One common living benefit is the Accelerated Death Benefit rider, which provides policyholders diagnosed with a terminal illness the option to receive a portion of their death benefits to cover medical expenses and other financial needs. While utilising living benefits can provide invaluable support during challenging times, it is essential to note that accessing these benefits may impact the total amount paid to beneficiaries upon the policyholder’s death.

Exclusions and Limitations

While life insurance is a robust financial tool, it is crucial to be aware of certain exclusions and limitations that may impact the payout of the death benefit. Understanding these nuances ensures that policyholders and beneficiaries have realistic expectations regarding the coverage provided. Some common exclusions and limitations include:

Suicide Clause: Many life insurance policies contain a suicide clause, which stipulates that if the policyholder takes their own life within a specified period, typically the first two to three years of the policy, the death benefit may not be paid out. This clause is designed to mitigate the risk of individuals purchasing life insurance with the intent of self-harm.

Contestability Period: Life insurance policies have a contestability period, usually the first two years after the policy comes into effect. During this period, the insurance company has the right to investigate and potentially deny a death benefits payout if they discover that the policyholder provided false or misleading information during the application process.

Exclusions for Risky Activities: Some policies may include exclusions for specific high-risk activities or professions. Engaging in activities such as extreme sports or having a hazardous occupation may lead to exclusions or higher premiums.

Reviewing the terms and conditions of a life insurance policy thoroughly and seeking clarification on any uncertainties is essential to ensure that both the policyholder and beneficiaries are well informed about the coverage and any potential limitations.


In conclusion, the intricacies of how life insurance works are multifaceted, reflecting the diverse needs and circumstances of individuals. Life insurance stands as a powerful tool that goes beyond providing a financial safety net; it encompasses living benefits, tailored policy types, and a commitment to empowering the financial futures of individuals and their families. Making an informed decision about life insurance involves a thoughtful consideration of personal financial goals, risk tolerance, and the unique needs of loved ones.

As individuals embark on the journey of securing life insurance, the key lies in understanding the mechanisms, embracing the flexibility of policy options, and navigating the fine print with diligence. In doing so, individuals can harness the full potential of life insurance to safeguard their loved ones, create a legacy, and ensure financial security even beyond their lifetime.