Life insurance: what policy should I get, and how much cover do I need?

1 min readLast updated November 10, 2023by Lisa-Marie Voneshen

When you apply for life insurance, the provider will ask how much coverage you want. This cover is the lump sum paid to a chosen person when you die. So, how much should this sum be?

The amount of life insurance you’ll need depends on your circumstances, such as who is financially dependent on you, their needs and lifestyle, and what other sources of income will be available when you’re no longer around. 

Here are some guidelines to help you calculate the right level of cover. 

Why should I have life insurance? 

To know how much life insurance you need, you have to think about why you need it. 

Life insurance exists to provide money for your dependents after your death. It might be for a specific purpose, such as paying off the rest of your mortgage, or for general living costs. 

Once you know why you need life insurance, it’s easier to determine how much it should be. 

How much life cover should I apply for? 

The cover you should take out will depend on various factors, including your income, needs and budget. 

When calculating life insurance, consider the following: 

  • Are you single or in a relationship? 

  • Are you married, in a civil partnership, or cohabiting? 

  • Think about all your dependents. Is it only your partner, or do you have children and elderly relatives? 

  • Do you have a mortgage? 

  • Do you have other debts that will need to be paid off? 

Could your beneficiaries be subject to inheritance tax, and could life insurance help to settle it? 

Naturally, the more obligations you have, the more coverage you may need. 

Once you’ve made a full list of your financial responsibilities, write down an estimate of the monthly costs associated with each and how long these would last. It’s worth including current and future costs, but only those that would affect the household in the event of your death. 

If your cover is for a mortgage or debt, take the lump sum of what you owe and add a buffer for any taxes and duties. 

If your cover is for income replacement, you could multiply your annual salary by the number of years you want to cover or take the lump sum of income needed and multiply it by a suitable number of years (which depends on how long you think it will take to replace this income).  

So, for example, if you want to insure for an income of $20,000 and make this last for 10 years, you would be looking for cover in the region of $200,000 (though possibly less if the money is invested for income). 

A financial advisor can help you calculate how much you’ll need. 

Covering your mortgage 

It’s not compulsory to have life insurance when you buy a home, as the mortgage company can sell the property to recoup the loan. But if you have dependents, life insurance is essential from a personal point of view – since you don’t want to leave your family homeless. 

Life insurance for a mortgage is typically set up so that the entire mortgage will be paid off if one of the mortgage holders dies before the loan is settled. 

There are five different types of life insurance: 

  • Term life insurance: your premium and payout stay the same for a fixed term, but if you outlive your policy, your beneficiaries won’t benefit. 

  • Whole life insurance: this usually lasts your entire life, and the premiums and death benefits stay the same, and you get a guaranteed rate of return on the policy’s cash value. One downside is that whole life insurance is usually more expensive. 

  • Variable life insurance: this policy pays out a specific amount to your beneficiaries when you die. It also has a cash value that is affected by many factors, including the performance of underlying securities. 

  • Universal life insurance: this type allows you to adjust your premiums while the cash value grows depending on interest rates. The premiums can also rise over time, becoming more expensive.  

  • Burial insurance: this is smaller than the above policies as it covers your funeral and other expenses after you die, and coverage can be capped at small amounts. 

Protecting your family 

Whether or not you have a mortgage to pay off, you may also want to cover the day-to-day living costs of your dependents after your death. 

The level of coverage you need will depend on their needs, ages, accustomed lifestyle, and of course, how many of them there are. 

It’s useful to think of this cover as your income replacement. A general rule of thumb is to add the monthly costs affecting your family after you pass away, then multiply this figure by a few years. Parents of young children, for example, might multiply by 15 years or more. 

These monthly costs can be existing ones, like grocery bills, rent or council tax. They can also be future costs, like college fees. 

Consider including scenarios in your planning. If you die, would circumstances change? Do you have a partner that is a stay-at-home parent or carer for an elderly relative? Will they need to work in the event of your death? If so, childcare or care home costs could be worth factoring in. 

Covering your child’s education 

This might be important to you if your child attends a fee-paying school or if they are going to college. Even if they are in a no-fee school, there will always be significant costs such as uniforms, equipment and school trips. 

Your cover amount depends on what institutions your children attend (both now and in the future), how many children you have, and their education needs. Add the appropriate costs and, based on your children’s ages, multiply by how many years you need to cover. 

You might want to include a buffer for annual fee increases too. Remember the lesson every parent learns: school is always more expensive than you expect. 

Covering other debts 

You might need other debts or costs covered outside of mortgages and income protection, from unpaid personal loans to funeral costs. Factor these in if you need them, and avoid having any other related policies. 

A working example of life cover calculations 

Here’s an example of what a life cover estimate might look like. 

Peter’s annual income is $50,000. If he used the simplest rule-of-thumb, he could multiply this by 10 for life cover of $500,000. 

Using a more detailed approach, Peter might consider that he has two young children, pays half the mortgage and wants his income covered for 10 years. 

His calculations would therefore look like this: 

Car loan $12,000
Mortgage $100,000
Child one education $57,000
Child two education $57,000
Living expenses $150,000
Funeral costs $6,000
Total $156,000 $12,000 $100,000 $114,000
Grand cover total $382,000

With this more considered approach, Peter pays higher premiums but now knows he will have enough to put his children through school and meet all their other needs, which the other approach would not have delivered. 

Should I add critical illness cover? 

Critical illness cover is an optional extra, which covers the financial pressures that would occur if you became seriously ill or were injured. People who opt for this cover typically go for an amount two or three times their salary or equivalent to their mortgage. 

A range of conditions are covered. Some may be more predictable than others. For example, if you work in a physical job, a back injury may be more likely and damaging. 

However, in most cases, you can’t know how likely you’ll develop an illness. Ultimately, this decision will come down to your attitude to risk and how many precautions you prefer. 

That said, a financial advisor who specializes in protection can help you work out the probabilities and impact if you develop a given condition and can recommend the most suitable level of cover. 

An advisor can also ensure you don’t get caught by the fine print. For example, sometimes, if you have combined term life insurance and critical illness cover, your policy might only pay out once (e.g., for illness or death, but not both). 

Some workplaces offer in-service death and disability coverage as a benefit. Check with your employer, and see how this benefit compares to a life insurance policy so you don’t end up paying for something you already have. 

What if I need more life insurance coverage than I can afford? 

Sometimes when you approach a provider directly, you will be told that your insurance will be more than you can afford – for instance, if you have a pre-existing condition. 

However, you don’t have to take no for an answer. 

A financial advisor specializing in insurance can usually find you an affordable policy.  

Remember, life insurance should be checked regularly and, if necessary, updated to ensure it is still suitable for your changing needs. 

A financial advisor can help you find the best cover at the best price. Unbiased can match you with your perfect financial professional. Get started today. 

Senior Content Writer

Lisa-Marie Voneshen

Lisa-Marie Voneshen is a Senior Content Writer at Unbiased. She is an award-winning journalist with nearly a decade of experience writing and editing content across various areas, including personal finance and investing.