The 4 best life insurance providers

  • State Farm — Best Term Life Insurance
  • Northwestern Mutual — Best Whole Life Insurance
  • New York Life — Best Life Insurance for Seniors
  • TIAA Life — Best Cheap Life Insurance

State Farm: Best Term Life Insurance

Pros
Cons
  • Variety of term life plans
  • Generous extension opportunities
  • Best-in-class customer service
  • Standout resources
  • Rigid term lengths
  • Likely not your cheapest option

Why we chose it

Variety of term life plans

Unlike most companies — which carry one or two term life options — State Farm offers four different varieties that let customers match their coverage to their financial goals. The first, Select Term, is boilerplate, affordable term life that lasts for 10, 20, or 30 years. The second, Return of Premium insurance, is more expensive but allows you to recoup your paid premiums if you outlive the policy. Mortgage Term Life covers you for 15 or 30 years, with payments that decrease over time as your mortgage is paid off. Finally, Instant Answer Term provides up to $50,000 of coverage for those who do not wish to take a medical exam. Whatever your term life needs, State Farm likely has a plan to match.

Generous extension opportunities

Your life insurance needs could change at any time. For example, you may have kids living at home longer than expected, need to take out a second mortgage, assume care of an elderly parent, and so on. This means it’s important to look for term insurance that can be extended if necessary. State Farm has some of the most lenient allowances in that department. It lets you renew term coverage through age 95 or convert to a permanent policy through age 75, all without taking a medical exam. By comparison, many companies require a second health exam to renew or convert — meaning prices will go up. Some companies, like New York Life, may even require you to purchase an additional rider for conversion privileges. State Farm guarantees the right to extend coverage at no additional cost to you.

Best-in-class customer service

As of 2017, State Farm is enjoying its fourth year in a row as J.D. Power’s top-ranked company for customer satisfaction. The J.D. Power survey, which polled more than 6,000 life insurance customers, asks policyholders to rate their experience with a provider. Everything from policy options to billing and statements to customer interaction is taken into account — and State Farm scored top marks in every category. A guarantee of great service is especially important for life insurance. We’re confident that State Farm will be easy to work with and won’t muddy the claims process or add stress during an already difficult time.

Standout resources

Life insurance is pretty complex, so we appreciate any company that takes steps to simplify shopping and policy management. State Farm has a few unique tools to that end. First, the company offers quotes for term life insurance online. Not all providers do, and it’s a hugely convenient tool when comparison shopping. State Farm is also one of the few providers that lets you file claims online and provides a checklist of the information you’ll need to do so. Most companies tiptoe around the subject of claims and make information scarce, so State Farm’s straightforward approach is refreshing.

Points to consider

Rigid term lengths

State Farm only offers 10-, 20-, and 30-year term lengths (unless you opt for its 15-year mortgage term insurance). That means it’s not the best choice for people with very specific term needs: say, someone who only wants coverage for 12 years until their child moves out. If you’d prefer a more tailored term length, we suggest checking out New York Life, which lets customers choose a term life policy anywhere between 10 and 20 years.

Likely not your cheapest option

In our review of the best cheap life insurance, State Farm quoted slightly higher premiums than other companies we tested, including TIAA Life, Amica, Transamerica, and New York Life. Of course, premium comparisons need to be taken with a grain of salt. Life insurance quotes are highly personal, so State Farm may still end up being the best choice for you. We recommend requesting quotes from a few different companies to see how your coverage and pricing options stack up.

Northwestern Mutual: Best Whole Life Insurance

Pros
Cons
  • Diverse policy riders
  • Flexible entry point
  • Above-average customer ratings
  • Strong dividend performance
  • Sub-par online resources
  • No Child Term rider

Why we chose it

Diverse policy riders

While riders are important for any life insurance policy — and all of our top picks offer a good selection — they’re especially critical for whole life insurance. Since your policy will be with you for the long haul, it should be able to adapt to all of life’s changing circumstances. That’s a big part of the reason we recommend Northwestern Mutual for permanent insurance.

The company has one of the best coverage selections we’ve seen, with 15 of the 16 popular riders we looked for. Its add-ons allow you to extend coverage to children or a spouse, excuse premiums if you become disabled, access the death benefit early in case of terminal illness, increase your death benefit to keep pace with inflation, and more. With Northwestern Mutual, you can build a policy that provides much bigger value than a death benefit alone.

Flexible entry point

We generally recommend whole life insurance for people with larger assets, as premiums tend to be expensive (around a few hundred dollars per month). That said, permanent insurance should still be accessible if you want it; meaning companies shouldn’t bar entry with sky-high coverage requirements. Northwestern Mutual’s whole life coverage starts at just $25,000, unlike many other companies that set their minimums at $100,000 or more. If you’re interested in whole life but not ready to buy into a huge policy, Northwestern Mutual makes it easier to get started with a reasonably sized benefit.

Above-average customer ratings

We put a high value on great customer service — especially for whole life insurance, as it will be around for the rest of your life. That’s why we love Northwestern Mutual: It’s one of only five companies with a perfect customer service score in J.D. Power’s 2017 survey. It’s considered “Better than most” across the board, from customer interaction to policy options to billing. You can count on helpful reps, a smooth payment system, and responsive claims processing. Plus, should you need to use any riders during the course of your term (Critical Illness, Disability, etc.), NWM will make accessing those benefits smooth and painless.

Strong dividend performance

One of the biggest benefits of a whole life policy is the ability to build cash value, and a sizeable annual dividend is an easy way to bolster that cash account. Of course, dividends are never guaranteed. They depend on a company’s performance, your policy size, and other factors. But your best bet is to pick a provider with a strong historical dividend record — and Northwestern Mutual is a frontrunner in that race.

The company (which has been around since the 1800s) paid out its 147th year of continuous dividends in 2017. With $5.3 billion to be paid out in 2018, it’s expected to remain one of the biggest dividend-paying life insurance companies on the market. That makes it a pretty sure choice for adding a yearly bonus to your whole life cash value account.

Earning dividends

Whole life policyholders are typically eligible to earn dividends, meaning they receive a cut of the company’s annual profits. Dividend-earning life insurance policies are also called “participating policies.”

Points to consider

Sub-par online resources

Northwestern Mutual’s website notably sparse. It offers very basic details on the types of insurance it carries and nothing else. All signs direct you to “Take the next step” and contact an agent if you’d like to learn more. While you’ll have to talk with an agent eventually to get signed up, we prefer companies that provide enough policy information for shoppers to explore options on their own first. That way you have the means to comparison shop without an agent putting the sell on. Many companies provide comprehensive learning centers or FAQs to empower shoppers — in this regard, NWM falls far behind the pack.

No Child Term rider

The only rider on our list not offered by Northwestern Mutual is Child Term, an add-on that lets you extend coverage to your child or children for a small additional fee. If that option is important to you, we recommend looking at policies with either New York Life or State Farm — both of which do carry it.

New York Life: Best Life Insurance for Seniors

Pros
Cons
  • Range of death benefits
  • Generous age limits
  • Survivorship insurance option
  • Average customer service
  • Poor FAQ
Why choose GUL?

We recommend Guaranteed Universal Life Insurance (GUL) to seniors with tight budgets and/or flexible death benefit needs. Policy sizes are customizable, premiums are affordable like term insurance, and it guarantees a death benefit payout à la whole life insurance.

Why we chose it

Range of death benefits

New York Life offers Guaranteed Universal Life policies that are ideal for seniors. Its death benefits are flexible: Policies start at just $25,000 but reach as high as company retention limits will permit (read: in the millions). This is important for seniors, whose policy needs can range from the very small (for example, a few thousand dollars to cover funeral expenses) to extremely large (say, someone who wants to use life insurance as a channel for inheritance). Whatever your coverage requirements, New York Life likely offers a benefit fit to size.

Generous age limits

Seniors should be able to opt into life insurance when they’re ready, whether that’s at age 65 or 85. We’re impressed by New York Life’s generous age-of-issue allowance. The company will issue GUL policies through age 85 with or without a medical exam. That “no-exam” qualifier is important, especially when it comes to seniors. For someone with a pre-existing health concern, an exam could mean pricier insurance or even (in extreme cases) being denied coverage. New York Life is one of the few companies that will issue a brand-new policy without an exam so late in life.

Survivorship insurance option

New York Life also offers a Survivorship Universal Life option (and is one of only two top GUL companies to do so, along with Lincoln Financial). It delivers the same flexible payment plans and guaranteed death benefit of GUL, but with one big difference: SUL extends that coverage to two people and only pays out after the second spouse dies. This ensures that funds can be used to cover outstanding obligations, as well as taxes on any assets that the first spouse may have passed on to the second. New York Life’s SUL is a good option for two spouses that want sizeable, joint coverage without paying for two whole policies. Death benefits start at $250,000 and only max out at company retention limits.

Points to consider

Average customer resources

While we stand by the quality of New York Life’s insurance products, we’re less blown away by its customer resources. There’s no online quote tool for easy price comparison, and unlike some companies (The Globe, for example), New York Life hasn’t yet developed a mobile app to make policy management convenient for its customers. Most every decision or change has to be made by speaking with a New York Life representative over the phone.

Poor FAQ

To top it off, the FAQ on New York Life’s website is unhelpful. The answers to basic questions (How much insurance do I need? How do I get a quote?) instruct you to contact an agent directly. We appreciate when companies are more forthcoming with information on their websites, allowing customers to shop around without the pressure of speaking to a salesperson. If you’re hoping to do most of your life insurance comparison shopping online, New York Life isn’t as accommodating as many other providers.

TIAA Life: Best Cheap Life Insurance

Pros
Cons
  • Affordable term life
  • Opportunities for policy conversion
  • Easy application
  • Limited rider selection
  • Little term flexibility

Why we chose it

Affordable term life

In our review of the best cheap life insurance, we requested quotes for a variety of profiles: male and female, older and younger, smoker and non-smoker. TIAA came back with some of the cheapest quotes for every scenario, compared to State Farm, New York Life, Transamerica, and Amica Life. Of course, we can’t guarantee that TIAA will be your cheapest option. Quotes are highly personal — that’s why we recommend comparing a few providers before making your final decision. What we can say is that TIAA is likely to be among the most affordable and should definitely make your list when comparison shopping for cheap life insurance.

Opportunities for policy conversion

Of course, the “best” insurance isn’t all about affordable premiums; TIAA also offers comprehensive coverage. We’re particularly impressed with this company’s conversion allowances: TIAA will let you switch from a term to whole life insurance at any point during the original policy, without taking a second medical exam. This policy is uncommonly flexible. Most companies limit the timeframe for conversion or charge an additional fee for the privilege. We appreciate TIAA’s generosity in the face of life’s unpredictability.

Easy application

TIAA’s Life Wizard tool makes it a breeze to determine your death benefit need, get a life insurance quote, and apply for coverage online. You can work through the whole process from start to finish in just a few minutes. By comparison, many other top companies (like New York Life or Northwestern Mutual) will only provide a quote if you call and speak with an agent directly. TIAA stands out for letting customers view and select their policy details without a sales rep watching over their shoulder. Of course, if you prefer to have a real person walk you through your options, that’s absolutely an option with TIAA as well.

Points to consider

Limited rider selection

TIAA has the shortest roster of any of our top picks: eight of the 16 popular riders we considered, compared to 11 from State Farm or New York Life and 15 from Northwestern Mutual. Most notably, TIAA lacks many of the living benefits that we looked for. It doesn’t offer Critical Illness, Long Term Care, or Disability riders, to name a few of the big ones. Our other top picks offer these and then some.

That said, it’s important to remember that living benefits are more crucial with a permanent policy than a term life policy. If coverage is set to expire while you’re still fairly young, then chances are lower that you’ll need to access the death benefit early. Make sure to consider term length and personal risk factors when choosing a provider — your own needs will determine whether TIAA is the right choice for your insurance.

Little term flexibility

Every insurance company structures their term lengths a little differently. With TIAA, you can opt for a 12, 15, 20, or 30-year term. This isn’t unusual; many companies offer terms in increments of five or ten years. However, it doesn’t leave a lot of room for customization. Some people may have specific coverage needs — say, for 13 years until a mortgage is paid off — and would prefer not to pay for more than they require. If that sounds like you, try a company like New York Life, which offers terms anywhere between ten and twenty years.

Guide to life insurance

How to choose a life insurance provider

Identify the right type of life insurance for you

  • Term life insurance is best for most people: especially younger folks, people early on in their careers, and those with limited financial portfolios.
  • Whole life insurance is best for people who have robust financial portfolios, need another channel for inheritance, and/or have maxed out traditional retirement savings.
  • Universal life insurance is best for seniors and anyone else who needs permanent life insurance coverage on a budget.

Compare quotes

Each company has its own underwriting process, meaning each evaluates your “risk factors” differently: things like health, age, family history, and tobacco use. You won’t know who can offer you the best coverage for your dollar until you look at a few options. Try using our quote tool to see which providers in your area offer the best premiums for your insurance needs.

Speak with an independent financial advisor

When comparing insurance companies, we recommend sourcing advice from an independent agent or financial advisor. Independent agents work with multiple companies, and it’s their goal to find you the best combination of coverage and price for your needs — rather than just selling you a policy from the company they represent.

Consider adding riders

Riders help to bolster your life insurance policy, adding protection against illness, disability, and financial troubles, or even extending coverage to family members. Before committing to a policy, identify the riders that might be important for you. We’ve put together a list of some of the most popular riders — and which of our top picks carry them — to help you get started.

= Covered by State Farm
= Covered by TIAA Life
= Covered by New York Life
= Covered by Northwestern Mutual
  • Guaranteed Renewability: Purchase additional term life insurance without undergoing a second medical exam.
  • Term Conversion: Convert your term life policy into a permanent one without undergoing a second medical exam.
  • Guaranteed Level Premiums Rider: Premiums are guaranteed to remain the same through the duration of your term life policy.
  • Waiver of Premium Rider: Future premiums are waived if you become permanently disabled due to illness or injury and can no longer afford them.
  • Accelerated Death Benefit Rider: Use a portion of the death benefit (usually around 75%) to cover medical or assisted living costs if you become terminally ill.
  • Spouse Insurance Rider: Extend your policy to cover your spouse for an additional fee.
  • Child Term Rider: Extended your policy to cover a child for an additional fee.
  • Accidental Death/Double Indemnity Rider: An additional death benefit will be paid in the event of an accidental death, generally in an equal amount to the policy’s face value.
  • Disability Income Rider: Provides a supplementary income if you become disabled and can no longer work, usually determined as a set percentage of the policy’s face value.
  • Critical Illness Rider: The insurer pays you a lump sum of money in the event that you’re diagnosed with any of a pre-set list of illnesses (generally cancer, heart disease, stroke, etc.).
  • Return of Premium Rider: Some or all of your premium will be returned if you outlive your term life policy.
  • Family Income Benefit Rider: The death benefit will be paid to your dependents as a regular income (in monthly installments) rather than as one lump sum.
  • Long Term Care Rider: The insurer will provide a monthly stipend to cover assisted care or nursing home costs if you require long term care.
  • Cost of Living Rider: Your death benefit will grow to accommodate for cost of living increases in accordance with the Consumer Price Index. This generally also means an increase in premiums.
  • Term Rider: Add additional term life insurance on top of your permanent life policy, ensuring a larger death benefit if you die within that term.
  • Paid Up Additions Rider (PUA or PUAR): Apply dividends to increase the cash value of your permanent life policy.

Life insurance FAQs

What is life insurance?

Life insurance creates a financial safety net for your family and loved ones in case you pass away. It provides a “death benefit,” traditionally in the form of a one-time, lump sum payment, that can be used to cover post-life expenses and your dependents’ ongoing financial needs. The size of the death benefit — also known as your policy’s “face value” — determines how much you’ll pay in premiums (a bigger benefit means larger payments, and vice-versa).

Do I need life insurance?

If anyone depends on your salary for their livelihood — children, a spouse, an elderly parent — then the answer is probably “yes.” Life insurance guarantees that your loved ones will be taken care of financially should you pass away. For those without dependents, life insurance can also be a means for retirement savings, building a nest egg, settling an estate, and more. We recommend talking through your options with an advisor. Try using the Society of Financial Professionals’ search tool to find an agent in your area.

What is term life insurance?

Term life insurance provides coverage for a set timeframe — between five and 35 years — and expires if you outlive the policy. It’s the most affordable form of life insurance, with premiums around $10 to $30 per month, although the tradeoff for smaller premiums is that a death benefit payout is not guaranteed. Experts like John Espenschied of Insurance Brokers Group recommend term insurance for young people whose death benefit requirements will shrink over time (as kids move away, mortgages are paid off, etc.).

What is whole life insurance?

Because whole life insurance never expires, the death benefit payout is guaranteed. In addition, whole life includes a “cash value” component that functions like a savings account. A policy’s cash value can be used as a secondary form of retirement savings or as a vehicle for loans. The catch? Whole life is more expensive than term life insurance, around $200 to $300 per month. Premiums are higher in part because a portion of what you pay goes toward the policy’s cash value.

What is universal life insurance?

Universal life is an affordable way to buy permanent life insurance. Like whole life, UL lasts for your entire life, meaning your beneficiaries are guaranteed a death benefit payout. It also gives you the opportunity to accrue a cash value, though smaller than that of whole life. On the payment scale, UL premiums are closer to those of term life. They’re affordable and give you flexibility with month-to-month payment amounts (although your annual premium must remain the same).

How much life insurance do I need?

A good first step is using an online life insurance calculator to determine how much insurance you really need. These tools are designed to take the most important factors under consideration — including potential hidden expenses like health insurance or retirement funds for a spouse. Emory Smith of EJS Financial Management recommends the Human Life Value tool from the nonprofit organization Life Happens.

What does "underwriting" mean?

Underwriting is the process that happens before a company gives you a quote. Underwriters consider a wide range of information — your health, age, family history, tobacco use, etc. — in order to determine the riskiness of insuring you. The company then uses that information to calculate your premium. If you’re considered “riskier,” your policy will be pricier because it’s more likely the insurer will actually have to pay out. “Full” underwriting includes a medical exam to help accurately gauge your health.

The best life insurance: Summed up

State Farm
Northwestern Mutual
New York Life
TIAA Life
Best Term Life Insurance
Best Whole Life Insurance
Best Life Insurance for Seniors
Best Cheap Life Insurance
A.M. Best Financial Strength Rating
A++
A++
A++
A++
S&P Global Financial Strength Rating
AA
AA+
AA+
AA+
Moody's Financial Strength Rating
Aa1
Aa2
Aaa
Aa1
J.D. Power Overall Customer Satisfaction Score
853/1000
802/1000
782/1000
N/A
# of Riders out of 16 Popular Options
11
15
11
8

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