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The major difference between whole life and term life is the amount of time the policy covers. As the name suggests, whole life covers the policyholder’s entire life, until death. A term policy insures the life only for a certain number of years, known as the term. When the term is up, the coverage ends. If the policyholder wishes to continue term life coverage, he or she must take out a new policy. This is an important juncture, critics of term life point out. If the term life policyholder has developed a serious illness, such as AIDS or cancer, insurance companies may not be willing to insure the life—or the premiums will be so high that the insurance will be out of reach. With whole life, coverage continues no matter what health problems the policyholder develops.

Since term life policies often expire without the insurer needing to pay a death benefit, the cost of term life insurance is much lower than the cost of whole life. In fact, term life insurance costs several times less than whole life insurance does. Affordability is term life’s main advantage. If a person has just started a family, he or she can take out a 20- or 30-year term life policy, knowing the family will be provided for should anything happen to the policyholder. After that, the term lifers argue, life insurance is no longer critical. With children grown, the mortgage paid off, and retirement in the offing, the policyholder can afford to allow the term policy to end without taking out another. The term life policy will have served its purpose.

This is another difference that whole lifers point to as a shortcoming of term life insurance: Once the term ends, all the money spent on term policy premiums is gone. The policyholder and his or her family will never see the money again. This is not the case with whole life insurance premiums. Since the policy covers the insured until death, the death benefit will be paid, which means the premiums will be recovered by the family. In addition, the insurance company invests the premiums, and the policy accrues what is known as cash value. The policyholder can borrow the cash value and pay it back to the insurance company. If the policyholder wishes to cancel the policy, the cash value will be paid to the policyholder. The amount paid out at the time of cancellation is known as the “surrender value.”

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