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Indexed Universal Life vs. Whole Life Insurance


Life insurance can provide a measure of financial protection for your loved ones against a worst-case scenario. Whole life insurance and indexed universal life insurance (IUL) are two types of permanent policies you might consider if you’re interested in lifetime coverage. While both policies can offer the opportunity to accumulate cash value while leaving behind a death benefit for your loved ones, they aren’t exactly the same. Understanding the differences between IUL vs. whole life insurance can help you decide which one may be right for you. A financial advisor can also help you sort through all the decisions that go into successful financial planning, not just deciding which type of insurance is appropriate.

Whole Life Insurance, Explained

Whole life insurance is a type of permanent life insurance. When you buy a whole life policy, you’re covered for life as long as your premiums are paid. This is different from term life insurance, which only covers you for a set term, say 20 or 30 years.

With a whole life insurance policy, you have a guaranteed death benefit that’s paid out to your beneficiaries when you pass away. Premiums usually remain level even as you age and the policy accumulates cash value over time.

You can borrow against that cash value if needed or use it to cover the premiums for your policy. Any outstanding loans remaining when you pass away are deducted from the death benefit that’s paid to the life insurance beneficiary or beneficiaries.

Here’s a breakdown of several whole life insurance benefits:

  • Guaranteed death benefit and cash value growth at a fixed rate
  • Ability to borrow against the cash value of the policy
  • Tax-deferred growth of cash value

Here are several whole life insurance drawbacks:

  • Lower potential returns compared to IUL policies
  • Limited flexibility in premium payments
  • May have to pay taxes on money withdrawn

Indexed Universal Life Insurance, Explained

Indexed universal life insurance is also permanent life insurance coverage. Similar to whole life insurance, IUL insurance policies can accumulate cash value over time. You can take out loans against the cash value or leave it in the policy to grow.

The biggest difference between IUL vs. whole life insurance is how cash value accumulates. With a whole life insurance policy, the cash value is guaranteed by the insurance company. If you’re using life insurance as an investment, that means the rate of return on your policy is fairly predictable.

Indexed universal life, on the other hand, works differently. The rate of return and the rate at which cash value accumulates in the policy is based on the performance of an underlying stock market index. Stock market indexes track a particular sector or segment of the market. So, for example, your IUL policy may track the movements of the S&P 500 Composite Price Index or the Nasdaq.

While the return potential for an indexed universal life policy can be higher than whole life insurance, returns aren’t unlimited. Insurance companies can impose a cap rate or ceiling on your returns each year. For instance, your policy might have a cap rate of 3% or 4% annually. The insurance company may also offer a minimum guaranteed rate of return.

Here’s a breakdown of four IUL benefits:

  • Potential for higher interest earnings
  • Death benefit can increase as cash value increases
  • Flexibility in premium payments

Here are three IUL drawbacks:

  • Premiums may rise
  • Generally more expensive than whole life insurance
  • Complexities in understanding the policy and the underlying index

IUL vs. Whole Life Insurance: Which One Is Better?

A woman researching IUL vs. whole life insurance.

Indexed universal life insurance and whole life insurance can both help you accumulate cash value while retaining a death benefit. But one may suit you better than another, depending on your financial needs and goals. This is where it helps to understand what each one is designed to do. For instance, you might choose a whole life insurance policy if:

  • You’re interested in guaranteed, stable returns year over year
  • You want reassurance that premium costs won’t increase over time
  • You want a guaranteed death benefit with the option to borrow cash from the policy if needed

Whole life insurance is more expensive than term life insurance, but it can be less expensive than indexed universal life insurance. Guaranteed returns also make it the less risky option of the two, which may appeal to you if you’re looking for a more conservative addition to your financial plan.

On the other hand, there are some benefits to choosing an IUL policy over whole life. For example, you may consider an indexed universal life policy if:

  • You’re interested in earning higher returns
  • You need or want flexible premiums
  • You’re looking for a way to supplement retirement income

Indexed universal life insurance carries more risk since your returns hinge on how well the policy’s underlying index performs. It’s possible that you could even lose money, but those losses may be limited if your insurance company offers a guaranteed minimum rate of return.

You also have more leeway with IUL insurance premiums compared to whole life insurance premiums. For example, you may be able to adjust your premium amount or temporarily suspend making premium payments and allow them to be covered by the policy’s cash value.

With both types of policies, the cash value can grow on a tax-deferred basis. You wouldn’t owe capital gains tax on earnings unless you were to surrender the policy. And any death benefits passed on to your policy beneficiaries would be tax-free.

How to Choose a Life Insurance Policy

Life insurance is something most people need to have, and there are several questions to consider when choosing a policy. Specifically, ask yourself:

  • How long do you need coverage to remain in place?
  • What amount of coverage is appropriate for your financial situation?
  • How much are you comfortable paying toward premium costs?
  • Are you interested in accruing cash value?
  • What degree of risk are you comfortable taking?

These questions can help you determine whether a term life or a permanent life insurance policy is the better fit. And if you opt for permanent life insurance, they can also help you decide between IUL vs. whole life insurance.

Don’t forget that there’s also a third permanent life insurance option available: variable universal life insurance. With variable universal life insurance, you’re investing the cash value portion of the policy directly into mutual funds or other securities, rather than tracking a stock market index. This type of policy can offer the highest return potential but it can also carry the most risk.

Talking to an insurance agent or broker can help you decide whether IUL, whole life insurance or another type of life insurance makes the most sense for you. You may also want to talk to your financial advisor about how to use life insurance effectively when crafting your estate plan.

Bottom Line

Deciding on iul vs. whole life insurance can be an important part of your estate planning process.

Indexed universal life insurance essentially combines an investment tool with a life insurance policy. You might find that attractive if you’ve exhausted your 401(k) contributions or IRA contributions for the year but still have money to invest. On the other hand, you might lean toward whole life insurance if you want a guaranteed death benefit with lifetime coverage.

Tips for Estate Planning

  • You can talk with a financial advisor about the best type of life insurance for your needs and how much coverage to get. If you don’t have a financial advisor yet, finding one doesn’t have to be hard. SmartAsset’s free tool matches you with up to three vetted financial advisors who serve your area, and you can have a free introductory call with your advisor matches to decide which one you feel is right for you. If you’re ready to find an advisor who can help you achieve your financial goals, get started now.
  • Using an online life insurance calculator can help you determine how much life insurance you need. Generally, financial experts often recommend having anywhere from 10 to 15 times your annual income in coverage, but the specifics of your situation may dictate having a larger or smaller death benefit.

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