Life insurance is an insurance policy that pays out a tax-free lump sum of money if you die while you're insured. This money is often called the 'payout'. How much this payout is and who it will go to is decided when you take out a policy. In general, a life insurance payout enables your loved ones to pay off debts, keep paying the bills, and generally cope financially without you and your income.

Choosing your life insurance payout

When you buy term life insurance, you choose:

  • How much cover you want to buy (the amount)
  • How long you want to be insured for (the term)
  • Whether your cover is level or decreasing (the type)

These three factors all combine to determine what your life insurance payout would be and when it would be received, in this way:

  • The amount of cover you have determines how much the lump sum payout would be
  • The term determines how long you're insured for – so your life insurance payout would only be made if you die during this policy term
  • The type determines what happens to your payout amount over time – whether it always stays the same (level) or goes down with time (decreasing)

Do all life insurance policies pay out in the same way?

No, there are different types of life insurance – and one of the ways in which they're different is how they pay out if you die. Here we'll explain how term life insurance pays out, but you can find out more about how other types of life insurance pay out here.

For term life cover, the two main types are decreasing and level policies. It’s important to understand the difference between the two as it affects how much money your loved ones will receive once you’re gone.

Decreasing term insurance

Decreasing term life insurance covers you for a fixed amount of time (eg. 10, 20, 30 or 40 years) and leaves your family with a lump sum payout – but, crucially, this payout will gradually decrease over time. If you die in the first few years of your policy, your family will be left with more money than if you die towards the end of your policy.

Term life insurance is a good option if you only need to protect your family for a certain period of time – until you’ve paid off the mortgage, for example, or until your children aren’t so financially dependent. This type of life insurance is one of the most affordable ways to get covered (it's cheaper than level term cover, as well as other alternatives like whole-of-life cover).

Level term insurance

Level term insurance also covers you for a fixed amount of time (eg. 10, 20, 30 or 40 years) and leaves your family a lump sum payout in the event of your death – but in this case the payout amount always stays the same. Your family will always receive the same amount whenever you die (so long as you die during the policy term).

Level term insurance is more expensive than decreasing term insurance, but it is a good option if you know the money your family needs without your income will always stay the same. You might choose it simply because you'd prefer to know that your family will always be left with the same guaranteed amount if the worst happens to you.

What can a life insurance payout actually be used for?

Nobody likes to think about dying, but if you want to be sure your death won’t leave your family with financial worry and debt, a life insurance policy is an easy way to do this. The lump sum your family receive can be used to:

  • Pay off the mortgage
  • Pay the rent
  • Pay off any debts you may have, such as credit-cards or loans
  • Pay for your funeral
  • Pay for essential monthly living costs
  • Pay for any other living costs, so your family can maintain their current lifestyle

The point is to make sure the payout is as useful for your loved ones as possible – meeting the financial needs they have without you and your income, until they reach a point when they can support themselves. Simply speaking: making sure any shortfall that you leave behind is covered.

Anorak tip: Calculating the financial shortfall you'll leave behind is complicated – not least because none of us can predict when we're going to die. It's a combination of what you want and need to happen after you die, and how much you can afford and are happy to pay to be insured. Our online tool helps you calculate exactly this. Get started here.

The other thing you should do to make sure the payout is as useful as possible is review your cover level whenever your circumstances change. Moving house, getting married, having another child – these are all common reasons for reviewing your existing level of cover, as they signal shifts in your financial commitments or dependents.

Some insurers will let you increase the level of cover you already have to make sure you’re not underinsured. In other circumstances, you might be better off taking out a new policy to replace your old one – or in addition to your old policy, to bridge the gap and make sure you're sufficiently protected. If you don't do this, your family might not have enough money to pay for the essentials after you've gone.

When life insurance does (and doesn't) pay out

A lump sum sounds pretty good – but is there a catch? It's natural to think this when you buy any kind of insurance. With life insurance, insurers typically pay over 90% of life insurance claims. Your family will receive your life insurance payout so long as you die while you're insured and you were honest about your health and lifestyle when you applied.

To be really clear, your family won't receive the payout if you aren't insured when you die (i.e. you die after your policy ends) or if you've cancelled your policy. It also won't pay out if you've missed paying your monthly premiums, because this usually leads to the insurer cancelling your policy. And they might not receive it if an exclusion applies. You can read more about the ins-and-outs of when life insurance does and doesn't pay out here.

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  • A life insurance 'payout' is the lump sum of money paid out if you die while you're insured
  • Different types of life insurance pay out in different ways
  • Term life insurance pays out a lump sum if you die within the term of your policy
  • Level term cover always pays out the same lump sum; decreasing term life insurance pays out gradually less over the life of your policy
  • A life insurance payout can be used to help your family pay off debts and keep up with the cost of living without you and your income
  • There are certain instances when the insurance company might not pay out, but if you’re honest with them and keep up your monthly payments, this is unlikely
What is life insurance?
An insurance policy that pays out a tax-free lump sum to your partner or family if you die. It’s designed to make sure your loved ones would be financially secure without you and your income.
Who needs life insurance?
Anyone who has financial dependents. In other words: other people who rely on your income. If you have a partner or children who’d be financially affected by you dying, you should consider having some life insurance in place.
How much does life insurance cost?
Life insurance is often very affordable, but the cost will be different per person. This is because it depends on the cover you buy and how much of a risk you are to insure (based on your age, health and lifestyle). Generally speaking, it's cheapest when you’re young, fit and healthy.
Does life insurance always pay out?
Life insurance will pay out if you die while you’re insured and you were honest about your health when you applied. It won’t pay out if you die after your policy runs out or you cancel it – and might not if you meet an exclusion (e.g. many insurers exclude death by suicide within the first year).
Is it easy to claim?
Claiming on a life insurance policy is straightforward – your partner or family simply claim directly with your insurance company. Making sure they know about your policy and have the details in case the worst happens can be helpful.