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Know your life insurance policy's 'cash value'?

Allen Wastler

Posted on July 31, 2023

Allen Wastler is a former financial journalist with over 30-years of experience, including time at CNBC, CNN, and Knight-Ridder Newspapers.
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Define what cash value is in a life insurance policy.

Describe what kinds of life insurance can feature cash value.

Break down how cash value works for different types of permanent life insurance.

Do you know what “cash value” is?

If you own a whole life insurance policy, chances are you do. But, if you don’t, then chances are you might not. But you might want to. It can be pretty useful.

Life insurance’s primary purpose is to provide a death benefit when the insured person passes. But some types of insurance build cash value as premiums get paid. And this cash value can grow over time.

You can borrow from your life insurance cash value for any purpose, like paying college tuition or covering an emergency expense.

Of course, there are consequences, as borrowing against life insurance cash value increases the chances that the policy will lapse, reduces the cash value and death benefit, and may result in a tax bill if the policy terminates before the death of the insured.

Nevertheless, some folks find that the cash value of a life insurance policy is a nice feature to have. (Calculator: How much life insurance do I need?)

Life insurance cash value can also be used to cover premium payments, should circumstances warrant. It will also serve as the basis for payment — the value that will be paid to you — should you choose to surrender your policy.

While these are all ways that whole life may help you address different financial needs, this information is not meant to imply that you’ll be able to use a single whole life policy to meet all of these financials needs during your lifetime.

Cash value and different types of life insurance

So, what kinds of life insurance have cash value?

Typically, permanent life insurance, which offers life insurance coverage throughout a policyowner’s life, carries a cash value component, provided the premiums are paid for a certain period.

Different types of permanent life insurance policies offer different features affecting how cash value grows or can be used.

  • Whole life insurance. The cash value increases based on a growth rate that is guaranteed by the carrier. How fast the cash value grows depends on how quickly premiums are paid. For instance, some policies can be paid up after 10 premium payments, and so build cash value relatively quickly. Others use a pay-to-age-100 premium schedule, and so are slower to build substantial cash value.
  • Universal life insurance. This kind of policy offers premiums that are generally flexible, within certain limits, which affects the rate at which cash value builds. Some people pay the maximum premium possible into a policy for the first years of coverage, building up the policy’s cash value. That cash value can then be used for any purpose. For example, it could be used to pay premiums if their income shrinks in retirement.
  • Variable universal life insurance. This kind of insurance allows policyowners to put a policy’s cash value into investment options managed by the insurance company. Any earnings from the investment options add to the cash value and may increase the size of the death benefit of the insurance policy. Insurance and other costs are paid from the account. However, the policy could lose value because it is tied to market performance.

In the end, life insurance cash value can be a useful tool for those looking to build funding options while also helping protect their loved ones. Many people turn to a financial professional to help understand what types of life insurance offering cash value may best fit their individual preferences and situation.

Learn more about life insurance...

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This article was originally published in June 2016. It has been updated.


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The information provided is not written or intended as specific tax or legal advice. MassMutual, its employees and representatives are not authorized to give tax or legal advice. You are encouraged to seek advice from your own tax or legal counsel.

Opinions expressed by those interviewed are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company.

The products and/or certain features may not be available in all states.  State variations will apply.

Life insurance products issued by Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company (MassMutual) and its subsidiaries, C.M. Life Insurance Company (C. M. Life) and MML Bay State Life Insurance Company (MML Bay State), Springfield, MA 01111-0001. C.M. Life and MML Bay State are non-admitted in New York.