There are two main types of permanent life insurance: whole and universal

Both provide lifetime coverage and have a cash value component but differ in other ways.4

Whole life insurance
For people who want more guarantees
Universal life insurance
For people who want more flexibility
  • The premium is guaranteed. 
    The premium payments never change or increase with age, so you always know the cost.
  • Cash value growth is guaranteed. 
    A whole life insurance policy builds tax-deferred cash value at a guaranteed rate over the life of the contract. So you know it will be worth at least a predetermined amount if you want to access the policy's cash. However, it could also grow faster if the policy qualifies for dividends (see below).5
  • There's a guaranteed death benefit.
     However, the payout will be reduced if there are outstanding policy loans when the policyholder passes away. 
  • Whole life insurance policies cost more than universal life. 
  • Premiums can vary.
     You can raise or lower your payments within certain limits, making it easier to keep your coverage if your circumstances change. But you may eventually have to pay higher premiums to keep your policy in force.
  • Cash value growth can vary.
    The cash account growth is also tax-deferred. Despite having a guaranteed interest rate, because of the premium flexibility, the projected future guaranteed cash value may change over the course of coverage.
  • The death benefit can vary. 
    A universal life policy may allow you to change the amount of your death benefit.
  • Universal policies are less expensive than comparable whole life policies.

How does cash value accumulate in a permanent life policy?

Cash value grows on a tax-deferred basis. Still, growth varies depending on the type of permanent policy -- just as funds grow differently in a bank savings account versus a brokerage account. With whole life insurance, funds grow at a guaranteed interest rate -- but if you get your policy from a "mutual" insurer, you may receive dividends that can boost cash value growth beyond the guaranteed rate. That's because mutual insurance companies – like Guardian – are actually owned by their whole life policyholders, who may qualify for annual dividends based on policy cash value and company performance. While dividend payments cannot be guaranteed, Guardian has paid them to customers every year since 1868. These payments can further increase your cash value and have the potential to make a sizable contribution to your overall wealth.

Unlike whole life insurance, you don't receive dividends on universal policies, even with a mutual insurer. However, because the interest rate in a standard universal life policy (or UL) is variable, your cash value can grow faster or slower than for whole life. And, for those willing to accept a greater degree of risk, there are two variations on UL that offer the potential for even greater growth because the investment component is based on market returns:

  • variable universal life insurance policy (VUL) gives you the option to tie cash value growth to grouped stock market and bond investments called "subaccounts."6 However, growth in a variable life insurance policy is not guaranteed as in a standard universal or whole life policy. You, the policyholder, assume investment risk for any losses – just as you would with a brokerage account.
  • An indexed universal life policy (or indexed UL) lets you tie all or part of your cash value growth to the performance of a broad securities index, such as the S&P 500.7 There's a floor and cap for the minimum and maximum rates of return, so while you won't realize all the gains of your reference index, you won't suffer all the losses either.

How different permanent policies calculate cash value growth

Whole life A guaranteed fixed interest rate, plus potential dividends with a mutual company
Standard universal life  Current market interest rates, but guaranteed not to go below a minimum set in the insurance contract
Variable universal life  Based on the performance of subaccount investments you choose, which are similar to mutual funds. You enjoy any gains and assume the risk for any losses.
Indexed universal life  Based on the performance of a broad market index, such as the S&P 500, with minimum and maximum caps to limit your investment risk.

Four ways to use cash value while you're still alive

Money in your cash value isn't taxed as it grows, so it can grow faster. It usually takes a few years for cash value to grow into a usable sum, but once that happens, it becomes a financial asset with many advantages. Generally speaking, there are four ways to access the value of that asset:

1. Surrender 2. Withdrawal 3. Loans 4. Premium payment
You cancel the policy and take the cash surrender value payment. However, you'll no longer have life insurance protection. With a newer policy, there also can be significant surrender fees and/or taxes, so it's generally not advisable before retirement age since there are other ways to use policy funds. You can typically withdraw cash from your permanent policy, and the money is non-taxable as long as it's less than the amount paid into the policy. However, the death benefit will usually be reduced, and the reduction may be greater than the amount withdrawn, depending on the terms of your policy. You can use your policy cash value to secure a loan that grows at a fixed or variable loan rate set in the contract. Rates can be competitive or lower than a personal loan and there is no application or credit check. You can even choose not to repay, but the outstanding loan balance will normally be deducted from your death benefit. Want to stop paying premiums after you retire? You can often use the your cash value to pay part or all of your premiums. This can make it much easier to keep your coverage intact if your income declines when you are no longer working.

Pros and cons: permanent vs. term life insurance

Permanent coverage   Term coverage
Yes Income tax-free death benefit Yes
Higher Cost Lower
Lifetime Coverage length Temporary
Yes Cash value No
Yes Policy loans No
Yes, typically Health exam required Yes, typically
Yes Estate planning benefits Not typically
Yes Customizable riders8 Yes

How much does permanent insurance cost?

Many factors impact the cost of life insurance, including age, gender, tobacco use, overall health, and the amount of coverage. But in general, permanent life insurance costs significantly more than term life insurance because it provides considerably more benefits – and can be used in ways that term life can't. Also, whole life insurance rates tend to be higher than universal life. Your specific policy cost will vary, but the following charts show typical rates for healthy male and female nonsmokers at different ages. Note that no matter what kind of coverage you want, the younger you are, the less you'll pay.

$500,000 coverage - Average Monthly premiums for women

  Term1 Universal2 Whole2
Age 30 $16 $125 $313
Age 40 $24 $187 $467
Age 50 $54 $320 $733

$500,000 coverage - Average Monthly premiums for men

  Term1 Universal2 Whole2
Age 30 $19 $144 $355
Age 40 $28 $219 $541
Age 50 $69 $359 $856

1 Source:  Accessed 06/15/2022

2 Source: Accessed 06/15/2022

Permanent life policies can be tailored to your needs

Most term life and permanent policies offer "riders" – optional provisions that give you added protection and benefits. However, permanent insurance policies typically offer more riders and customization because they're designed to cover a lifetime of different possibilities. Here are some of the options to discuss with your financial professional:

  • Waiver of premium rider9 If you become disabled and can't work, this rider will pay your entire premium, allowing you to keep your policy in effect. A similar rider, called "Waiver of Cost of Insurance,"10 only pays the death benefit portion of your premiums, not the cash value portion. 
  • Accelerated benefit rider  This rider provide an option to accelerate a portion of the death benefit while you are still alive if you become terminally ill or chronically ill (not able to perform at least two out of six Activities of Daily Living (ADL).
  • Guaranteed insurability rider  This allows you to increase the size of your death benefit at certain times without providing evidence of insurability or undergoing a new medical exam – effectively letting you lock in lower rates now and get a bigger policy later. Guardian gives you up to eight option dates throughout your life to purchase additional coverage.

Talk to a life insurance professional about your needs

Life insurance costs go up with age, so there's no better time than the present to consider getting a policy. Permanent life insurance can be a powerful financial resource that helps to protect your family and lifestyle now, and builds cash value for needs later in life. However, your situation is unique, and professional guidance is needed to build a permanent life contract designed for the specific needs of you and your loved ones. So it helps to discuss your situation with a financial professional who has helped others get whole life insurance coverage. If you need help finding such a person, Guardian can connect you to a financial representative who can help. 

Frequently asked questions about permanent life insurance

What is permanent life insurance, and how does it work?

A permanent life insurance policy is a contract with a life insurance company to provide protection throughout your entire life, as opposed to term insurance that just provides coverage for a specified number of years. As with term coverage, the death benefit is typically paid out income tax-free to beneficiaries. Most permanent life policies also build tax-advantaged cash value: a portion of premiums goes to the cost of insurance, another part goes to administrative costs, and the rest is put in the policy's cash value, where it grows tax-efficiently over time. The cash value can be used for a policy loan or accessed in other ways to supplement retirement savings and help meet future financial goals. 

What are the 4 types of permanent life insurance?

The four most common types of permanent, cash value life insurance are whole life, standard universal life insurance (UL), variable UL, and indexed UL. All these policies can provide life-long insurance protection and a tax-advantaged financial asset. The main differences have to do with how premiums are structured, and how cash value grows:

  • Whole life: Premiums never change; Cash value grows at a guaranteed fixed rate, and may be eligible to receive annual dividends.
  • Standard UL: Premiums can vary within a certain range; however, you may eventually have to pay higher premiums to keep your policy in force; Cash value grows at an adjustable market interest rate
  • Variable UL: Premiums can vary within a certain range (with the caveat noted above); Cash value growth is based on the performance of subaccount market investments  – but you assume the risk for any losses.
  • Indexed UL: Premiums can vary within a certain range (with the caveat noted above); Cash value growth is tied to the performance of a broad market index, such as the S&P 500, with minimum and maximum caps to limit your investment risk.

Different companies offer variations on these permanent life insurance categories. There are also other types of permanent life insurance policies that don't build cash value that can be accessed as an asset, including low-face value "end-of-life" policies with death benefits designed to pay final expenses.

Can you cash out permanent life insurance?

Yes. A whole or universal permanent life insurance policy builds cash value that can be accessed in a number of ways depending on the terms of the policy. One way is to "surrender" or cash out the policy. However, you will lose your life insurance protection, and cashing out a policy before retirement age may result in costly surrender penalties. Fortunately, there are other ways to access policy cash, such as taking out a loan (which doesn't have to be repaid) or using cash value to pay your premiums.

Find a financial professional near you
Go now


This article is for informational purposes only. Guardian may not offer all products discussed. Please consult with a financial professional to understand what life insurance products are available for sale.

1 All whole life insurance policy guarantees are subject to the timely payment of all required premiums and the claims paying ability of the issuing insurance company. Policy loans and withdrawals affect the guarantees by reducing the policy’s death benefit and cash values.

2 Some whole life polices do not have cash values in the first two years of the policy and don’t pay a dividend until the policy’s third year. Talk to your financial representative and refer to your individual whole life policy illustration for more information.

3 Guardian, its subsidiaries, agents and employees do not provide tax, legal, or accounting advice. Consult your tax, legal, or accounting professional regarding your individual situation.

Policy benefits are reduced by any outstanding loan or loan interest and/or withdrawals. Dividends, if any, are affected by policy loans and loan interest. Withdrawals above the cost basis may result in taxable ordinary income. If the policy lapses, or is surrendered, any outstanding loans considered gain in the policy may be subject to ordinary income taxes. If the policy is a Modified Endowment Contract (MEC), loans are treated like withdrawals, but as gain first, subject to ordinary income taxes. If the policy owner is under 59 ½, any taxable withdrawal may also be subject to a 10% federal tax penalty.

4 Permanent life insurance consists of two types: whole life and universal life. Cash value grows in a participating whole life policy through dividends, which are declared annually by the company's board of directors and are not guaranteed. Cash value grows in a universal life policy through credited interest and decreased insurance costs. The cash value of both policy types benefits when the policyholder pays an amount above the required premium.

5 Dividends are not guaranteed. They are declared annually by Guardian’s Board of Directors.

6 A Variable Universal Life (VUL) policy is considered both life insurance and a security and is sold with a prospectus. Premium and death benefit types are flexible. It’s crediting rate is based on the performance of the underlying investment options provided in the policy. There is no guaranteed interest rate. This type of policy may lapse due to low or negative performance of the underlying investment options, inadequate funding, and increasing cost of insurance rates. See your policy prospectus for more information.

7 An Indexed Universal Life (IUL) policy is not considered a security. Premium and death benefit types are flexible. It’s crediting rate is based on the performance of a stock index with a cap rate (i.e. 10%), a floor (i.e. 0%), and a participation rate (i.e., 100%). This type of universal life policy may lapse due to low or negative performance of the stock index, inadequate funding, and increasing cost of insurance rates.

S&P 500 Index is a market index generally considered representative of the stock market as a whole. The index focuses on the large-cap segment of the U.S. equities market. Indices are unmanaged, and one cannot invest directly in an index. Past performance is not a guarantee of future results.

8 Riders may incur an additional cost or premium. Riders may not be available in all states.

9 A Waiver of Premium rider waives the obligation for the policyholder to pay further premiums should he or she become totally disabled continuously for at least six months. This rider will incur an additional cost. See policy contract for additional details and requirements.

10 Wavier of cost of insurance rider is available only for Universal Life policies.

2022-142858 20240930