Group vs. Individual Life Insurance (Definitive Guide)

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Group life insurance is a common workplace benefit that allows employees to get coverage at special rates. Companies can offer coverage that’s paid for by the employer as well as voluntary coverage that the employee can choose to be deducted directly from their paycheck.

While group life can be a great benefit, there are some differences between what you get at work and what you can get by shopping around for individual life insurance.

Before you buy, you need to understand the differences so you can be certain you’re getting the coverage that’s right for you.

Buying life insurance can be stressful and confusing, especially when you have both group and individual to choose from and you’ve got to make a decision on enrollment at work. How can you tell if the coverage you get through work is enough?

You don’t want to make a mistake with such an important decision. A simple breakdown of the options and a straightforward comparison to help you decide would make it easier, right?

We’ll tell you everything you need to know about group and individual life, including the pros and cons of each. We’ll cover how group life works and help you decide which option is best for you.

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What is group life insurance?

Let’s start with a basic definition of group life insurance. A group life policy is a life insurance policy that allows a large number of people to be covered under a single contract.

The risk to the insurance company on such a policy is spread across the entire group of people, decreasing the odds that the company will have to pay out a claim.

That makes the coverage more affordable to each individual on the policy. It also means it’s easier to qualify for than individual coverage.

Employers offer group life as part of their benefits package as a perk to their employees. It’s often bundled with things like disability insurance, dental and vision coverage, and other benefits. A good benefits package helps employers attract and keep a team of great employees.

Group life can be employer-paid, employee-paid, or a combination of both. Either way, it’s a common workplace perk that makes getting covered easy.

– How does group life work?

Group life insurance can be offered in several different forms. Most companies offer a basic amount of coverage that they pay for and which costs the employee nothing. This is usually offered as either a flat amount or as multiples of the employee’s salary, usually one or two years’ pay.

It’s possible for an employer to offer life insurance solely as a voluntary benefit. Voluntary means the employee can choose to elect it as part of their package and have the cost deducted directly from their paycheck.

In most cases, however, the voluntary benefits are offered as an additional option that can be added on top of the employer-paid coverage.

In that case, you can start with the provided coverage as a base. You can then increase your coverage by buying more insurance in increments that are set out by the insurance company. Together, these coverages can add up to a larger death benefit.

Let’s say you make $50,000 a year. Your employer gives you two years’ salary as a paid benefit. That’s $100,000 in coverage.

Your employer offers voluntary life insurance, as well, in increments of $25,000, and you want to provide a $500,000 death benefit for your family. You can buy 16 units of coverage at group life prices, for a total of $400,000 of voluntary coverage to add up to that coverage goal.

You can usually add to your group life coverage at each open enrollment period, and sometimes at other times during the year, as well. That allows you to increase coverage as needed without the need for an application or qualification process.

– Types of Group Life

Group life is usually offered as a term life insurance policy, which is the most affordable option. Some companies, however, do offer whole or even universal life options.

– Group Term Life

Group term life is an annual renewable policy, which means it’s renewed every year. This is done during the open enrollment period each year when you choose your benefits, even if it’s employer-paid.

This means there’s no specific end to the coverage term, unlike an individual policy that might have a set term of, for example, 15 or 30 years.

Annual renewable coverage allows the policy to be terminated if the employee decides to decline the coverage or leave the company. It works well because there’s no way of knowing exactly what term length would be for any given employee.

Term life is also less expensive because it’s for a limited time and doesn’t last for a lifetime. That reduces the odds that the insurance company will need to pay a claim. This, along with the flexibility, makes it a top choice for group life. This is usually the type of life insurance that’s offered as employer-paid.

– Group Whole Life

Group whole life insurance is a permanent life policy that has a guaranteed death benefit, level premiums, and a cash-value account. The coverage lasts your entire lifetime, which means you can take it with you when you leave your job, whether for a new job or at retirement.

Because it’s permanent coverage, this option is usually offered as a voluntary benefit rather than employer-paid. Group whole life was previously uncommon but is growing in popularity. That’s mainly due to lifelong coverage and guaranteed rates.

Group whole life, as mentioned above, can be taken with you. This is called being portable. When you take an insurance policy with you as you leave a job, the rates may be affected but, generally, your ability to qualify is not.

– Group Universal Life

Universal life is another type of permanent life insurance coverage that may be offered as a group policy. It’s less common mainly due to the fact that is a more complex type of policy.

Again, this type of life insurance is offered as a voluntary policy that the employee pays for. This also means that it’s portable coverage that can be taken with you when you leave your job and lasts a lifetime.

Universal life insurance policies are flexible in terms of premiums and death benefits, and also have a cash value account. They’re a lot like whole life, but with more flexibility.

– Does group life have a cash value?

As we discussed above, some types of group life can and do offer cash value accounts. These accounts can be accessed via withdrawals, loans, or surrenders.

Most group life, particularly those that are offered as employer-paid benefits, is term life. This type of policy doesn’t have a cash value account. If your employer offers both term coverage at no cost to you as well as additional voluntary benefits, you may have the option to choose a combination of both types.

Whether you need a cash value life insurance policy depends on your reasons for purchasing the coverage. For people simply looking to provide a death benefit, cash value isn’t necessary. It’s mainly selected to provide access to the money in case of future need.

Deciding whether you want a cash value policy is just one of the things to consider when shopping for life insurance.

– Group Life Riders

Riders are add-ons to a life insurance policy that add extra value. They include things such as accidental death benefits, living benefits, and premium waivers that kick in if you’re unable to make your payments.

Riders are available on many group life policies. Which ones you’ll be able to choose from depends on the insurance company and policy options your company has chosen to offer its employees.

The most common group life riders are:

  • Living benefits
  • Waiver of premium
  • Child term/spouse term
  • Accidental death

You’ll have to ask your human resources department which riders can be added to your policy. Riders do come with an additional cost, increasing your premiums. Take the time to consider which riders are worthwhile for you.

– Advantages & Disadvantages of Group Life 

Group life does have its advantages, but there’s a downside, as well. When deciding whether group life is right for you, it’s helpful to take a side-by-side look at its advantages and disadvantages.

AdvantagesDisadvantages
Affordable, and some may be provided at no chargeNot always the best price
Easy to qualifyMay not be portable (you could lose coverage if you leave your job)
No medical examLimitations on policy choices, including coverage amount
You can add more coverage without reapplyingYou don't get to choose your insurance company
Some coverage is portable (you can take it with you)Tax implications

We’ve already covered some of these points. Group life is affordable because it’s a shared risk, and it’s easy to qualify because rates are based on the group as a whole, not on your personal situation.

On the downside, you’re limited a lot in your choices with group life. You can only purchase what your company has decided to offer. There are limitations on policy type, death benefit, and riders.

One of the most important downsides to group life that you need to be aware of is the potential tax implications. You can be taxed on your group life insurance because it’s what is known as a taxable fringe benefit.

According to the IRS, the first $50,000 in group life insurance provided to you by your employer is tax-exempt. Any amount above and beyond that will be calculated as income for the purposes of taxes. This applies to:

  • Any insurance above $50,000 that your employer pays for directly, in whole or in part
  • If the employer makes the premium payments on your behalf and the premiums paid by employees subsidize one another.

So, when you have your premiums taken out of your check and paid by your employer directly to the insurance company, and that premium is helping to keep rates lower for everyone at your company (basically how group life works), the insurance is taxable. This subsidizing of each other’s premiums is called the straddle rule.

Before you buy group life or even accept employer-paid life insurance, make sure to take a look at how it will affect your taxes.

Group Life vs. Individual Life

Group life and individual life are similar in a lot of ways. Both will provide you with a death benefit to pass to your loved ones, which is the main reason to purchase life insurance. There are some differences, however, that you should be aware of when shopping.

– How Individual Life Differs From Group (And How It’s Similar)

Let’s take a look at the major similarities and differences between group and individual life insurance.

SimilaritiesDifferences
You can select any beneficiary you wantRating for group life is based on the group as a whole, individual is based solely on you
You own the policy and have control over any changes to itIndividual life offers both fully underwritten and no exam options
No one else can take coverage out on your without your knowledge, whether group or individualIndividual life offers far more selection of policy types and riders

It’s easy to see right away that the biggest differences are in rating and your choices. Group life is rated differently from person to person, and offers you fewer policy options to choose from. Aside from that, they function in much the same way.

– Advantages & Disadvantages of Individual Life

Like group life, individual life has its own set of pros and cons.

AdvantagesDisadvantages
You can shop around and choose your insurance companyIt is harder to qualify for if you are older or have health problems
You don't have to worry about losing coverage if you change jobsIt is more expensive if you are older or have health problems
For young, healthy people, rates may be lower than groupYou can't increase coverage without re-qualifying
There is a wide selection of policy types, coverage levels, and ridersMay require a medical exam

The biggest advantage of choosing to buy your life insurance in the individual market is the many options. You can shop around with various insurance companies to compare rates, policy options, and riders.

You can read company reviews and choose one based on reputation and financial standing as well as what they can offer in terms of coverage.

Of course, individual life can be more complex and difficult to get. That’s especially true if you are older or if you have health problems that affect your ability to qualify for life insurance.

Which type should you buy?

With both pros and cons to each option, deciding whether you should buy group or individual life insurance is difficult. For some people, one or the other is the better choice, and there’s also the possibility that you might carry both types. If you’re still confused and uncertain, you’re not alone.

In this next section, we’ll help you make the right decision. We’ll break down who should be buying group life and who should choose individual. Then we’ll cover the third option — combining both.

– Who Should Buy Group Life

We’ve covered the major advantages of group life, and that list points to the people best suited to buying that voluntary coverage. Group life’s biggest pros are that it’s easy to qualify for and that the spread of risk makes it more affordable.

What that means is that if you’re older or have health problems that have made it hard to get life insurance, or if the rates you’ve been quoted gave you sticker shock, group is a great option.

Group life is also a good choice for anyone unsure if they would be able to pass a medical exam.

While you can get an individual policy without an exam, you’ll pay more for it. In this situation, a group policy will be less expensive.

Group life also allows you to add more coverage over time, which means you can increase the death benefit without the need to re-apply. That means you can get more coverage regardless of what’s changed in your health or your age.

You should buy group life if:

  • You have health problems
  • You want to be able to add coverage later without an exam
  • Your age makes individual rates too high
  • You’ve compared the rates to individual life and group is much cheaper

Let’s consider the situation of a married person with a health condition that makes it hard to get life insurance — for example, a congenital heart condition. Considering children in the near future and wanting to make certain those children are provided for, our newlywed decides to accept an offer of group life at work.

They are able to get two times their salary at no cost and buy additional coverage to top it off, all without a medical exam.

In this situation, group life is the best choice. It’s affordable and accessible. If more coverage is needed in the future, it can be added no matter what happens with the person’s health.

– Who Should Buy Individual Life

The major advantage of buying individual life insurance is the selection of companies and policies to choose from. When you shop on the individual life market, you can choose the type of policy that’s right for you, and you’ll have a better selection of riders.

If you’re young and healthy and have no concerns about the underwriting procedure, individual life may well be the more affordable choice. It’s also a good choice if you are looking to provide a large death benefit or want an investment component to your policy. These things are much easier to find when you’re shopping in the independent market.

Individual life is also the best choice if you are concerned about portability.

If you anticipate job changes in the future, individual life won’t be affected by that change.

An example of someone who should be purchasing group life is a young, healthy person in their first job. The workplace doesn’t pay for any life insurance for employees. Voluntary group life is available, but comparing prices on individual policies reveals that lower rates are available.

In this case, more coverage can be bought for the money with an individual policy, which makes it the better choice.

You should buy individual life if:

  • You’re young and healthy
  • You’re getting lower rates on quotes for individual than group
  • You want to be able to take all of your coverage with you when you change jobs
  • You need a lot more coverage than what’s available at work

– Can you buy both?

If you’re still unsure which is the better option, there’s a third choice. You can choose to take advantage of group life at work while also taking out a private policy.

This is a good choice if your workplace offers some paid coverage, but you’d prefer to shop around for the best option on additional coverage. That way you can take advantage of the free coverage at work while getting the policy options and coverage you really want in your personal policy.

It’s also a good way to avoid the tax implications of group life.

You can choose to take the $50,000 in exempt coverage and get the rest of your coverage in a policy that doesn’t affect your taxes.

If you’re offered term life at work but also want to have some permanent coverage, you can choose to stack a larger group term life policy with a smaller whole life bought independently.

This takes away the pressure of portability and provides lifelong coverage, while still taking advantage of cheaper group rates on term life during the years when you need more coverage.

You may also want to stack coverage if you’ve taken out the maximum available at work but still have need of a larger amount of coverage. In that case, you can buy as much as is allowed at group rates through work, and then top it off with an individual policy.

However you choose to combine group and individual policies, there are still limitations to how much coverage you can take out. While you can have as many policies as you want, you can only be insured for an amount that matches the financial loss if you were to pass away.

If you have that maximum coverage in your group policy (and it’s portable), you may not need to buy an individual policy.

Group Life & Financial Planning

Life insurance is an important part of your financial planning for the future, whether you want to provide for retirement, manage your estate, or make sure your kids can go to college if something happens to you.

There are a lot of ways to fit life insurance into your financial picture. They are all very personal and individual, so you should speak with a financial planner or insurance agent to help decide what’s right for you. In this section, we’ll take a look at some of the considerations.

– How much coverage do you need?

Perhaps the biggest question for most people, and the starting point when shopping for life insurance, is how much coverage you need. There are a number of ways to answer that question. All the methods, however, come down to understanding what your financial goals are for the policy.

If you’re buying life insurance solely to provide a death benefit that will pay off debt and take care of loved ones who depend on you financially, the math is relatively simple. It can become more complex when you try to allow for future changes to the financial need such as more children.

How to buy coverage in that amount once you have calculated it depends on how long you’ll need that coverage. If you need a large amount of coverage for a short period of time, a term life policy is your best bet.

If you’re looking to provide a small death benefit that will pay for funeral costs and any other final expenses, a smaller whole life policy will work for you.

A life insurance needs calculator can help you come up with the right number. As you calculate, consider these possible reasons for needing life insurance:

  • Paying off a mortgage
  • Providing for children, spouse, or other dependents
  • Paying for college
  • Paying off debts, such as student loans and credit cards
  • Paying for final expenses
  • Charitable bequests
  • Transfer of wealth
  • Protecting your business

Not all of these will apply to your situation, but you might see more reasons in that list that apply to you than you might have previously considered. Since buying young is the key to getting the most coverage for your money, it’s a good idea to look to the future as well when considering your life insurance needs.

– Is group life a good investment?

Life insurance is often marketed as an investment. The idea is that you can pay into a cash-value account while also providing a death benefit and have that account earn interest over time. The account becomes either part of the death benefit or something you can access if you need it.

Group life is generally not viewed as an investment since most policies are term and don’t have a cash value account. If you are offered whole or universal life through work, you can build some cash in that investment account.

The bottom line is that yes, group life can be an investment if it is a cash value policy. But is it a good investment? That depends on a variety of factors.

Return on investment with life insurance depends on the type of policy and the interest rate.

As a general rule, cash value accounts are slow but steady earners. They’re low risk but won’t see huge returns.

If your goal is to save for retirement or you’re interested in bigger returns, you might want to consider some other options. Start with what else might be in your employee benefits package.

Does your company offer a 401(k) and if so, do they match your contributions? If so, this is likely to grow your retirement savings at a much faster rate than life insurance. You may also have access to an employee stock purchase plan, which, depending on the company, might be a good choice for your investment dollars.

Outside of workplace investment options, there is a whole world of ways to put your money to work earning returns. Talk to a financial advisor about things such as mutual funds and annuities. Make sure you have all of the information before you decide on the best path for investing your money.

– Group Life for Final Expense Planning

Final expenses are one of the biggest reasons people choose to buy life insurance, and why they look to whole life. You can use your group life policy as a plan for paying final expenses, but there are a few caveats.

The first is that not all group life is portable. Employer-paid policies can’t be taken with you if you leave your job, whether for a new one or when you retire. If you were counting on that policy to pay your final expenses, you’ll be out of luck and searching for new coverage.

If paying for your final expenses is your main reason for wanting life insurance, you might want to consider some different options.

A small, permanent whole life policy bought on the individual market has no issues of portability and will stay in place for your entire life. This is usually called, not surprisingly, final expense insurance.

That said, you’ll need to consider the question of whether you need lifelong coverage. For some people, there will be enough money in savings and other investments after years of working to make final expense coverage unnecessary.

Like everything regarding your choice of life insurance, the need for final expense coverage depends on your personal situation. Your age and health will have a lot of bearing on how you choose to provide for final expenses.

Portability & Conversion of Group Life

We have already mentioned several times the issue of portability that comes with group life insurance. Portability simply means that you can keep the coverage even if you leave your job.

There’s a second option to look at as well for continuing group coverage, and that’s conversion. In this section, we’ll cover both options.

– Can your group life policy go with you?

Group life is a workplace benefit. With the exception of a few benefits that are required by law, most benefits are optional perks.

That means it’s offered by companies to sweeten the deal for prospective employees as well as to keep the employees they already have. The benefits provided by your employer are only available to you for as long as you are an employee.

If you quit your job, you don’t get to keep your parking pass for the lot downtown or your company discount. But there are a few perks that you can take with you, given the right circumstances.

You can take 401(k) matching contributions that have vested, and in some cases, you can also take your life insurance. You can usually take your group life with you if you’ve bought voluntary coverage, but not the coverage your employer purchased for you.

There are two main options for taking group life with you, regardless of whether you’re going to a new workplace or retiring (although there may be age limits set by the insurance company). Those are porting and converting.

– Portable Group Life

Group life is considered portable when the option is available to continue the same type and level of coverage, but as an individual policy rather than a group policy. Essentially, it’s the same policy while also being a new policy.

That sounds confusing, but we’ll break it down.

Porting group life involves carrying the coverage over from the group pool to an individual policy, allowing you to keep it in force. In most cases, it only applies to the coverage you bought yourself through your employer. That’s the voluntary coverage you elected, not the base policy the employer provides at no cost to you.

To find out if you can port your group life policy, check with your company’s HR department. Portability depends on the options the company chose when putting together their benefits package, but it’s really pretty common these days with group term life.

Your HR department can also point you in the right direction for getting that porting process started. The process involves transferring your coverage to an individual policy. You won’t have to re-apply, and you can be turned down, so in that sense, it’s not quite like taking out a new policy.

When you port your life insurance, your rate may change. This is usually due to your age.

While you were paying a group rate that was determined by the overall group’s age and risk factors, your individual coverage will be based on your age alone. In some cases, you may have the option to take a medical exam to qualify for a lower rate, but it’s not required.

Porting life insurance has limits. You can only take as much coverage as you already had in place, and you can’t port to a new insurance company.

The same insurance company that provided the group policy will extend coverage on the ported policy.

What happens if you can’t port your coverage? You have a couple of options.

You might be able to convert the policy, which we’ll discuss in the next section, or you may need to shop around and apply for coverage on the open market. The good news there is that you might actually get more coverage for your money that way.

– Converting Group Life

Converting a group life policy is another option for continuing coverage if you leave your job. This process takes a group term policy and converts it to an individual whole life policy.

Like porting, converting is usually only available on the coverage you bought yourself and not on employer-provided coverage.

Again, your HR department at work will be able to tell you if your policy is convertible. You may have both a porting and conversion option, or you may only be able to do one or the other.

The rules for conversion are similar to those for porting. You won’t have to re-apply or pass a medical exam, although you may have the option to do so to try for a lower rate.

Your premiums will change, not only because of your age but because you are converting to a permanent policy. You’ll also have to keep the policy with the same company, and will be limited in terms of policy options.

The upside, however, is that the coverage is guaranteed, regardless of your health.

Converting your group term life to individual whole life might be the best option for you, but it’s always worth shopping around to compare rates and see what other choices are out there. You might be able to get a better rate on a new policy elsewhere.

If you can’t convert your group life policy, first find out if it’s portable. You’ll continue term coverage that way but won’t have to deal with a new application.

When neither is an option, you’ll have to look to the individual market.

– When to Let It Go

Even if your policy is convertible or portable (or both), it might not be in your best interest to take it with you. If you’re young and healthy, odds are pretty good that you can do better on the open market.

Converting and porting don’t give you a lot of options. You have to take what’s offered and you have to stick with the same insurance company.

With so many different companies and policies out there, it’s good to take the time to find out what else you could choose.

Before you make any decision on porting or converting group life, take the time to gather some quotes from a variety of insurers. Compare them to what is being offered on the group policy to see what’s really the best value for your dollar.

Shopping for Group Life Insurance

Choosing group life insurance isn’t the same shopping experience you would expect from buying other coverage. You don’t get to choose which company the policy comes from or which options are available.

That can make it feel like you don’t have many choices.

The good news is that you do have a choice. You can skip the group life and buy on the open market, but you need to make an informed decision. You don’t have time to do all the research, so we have some information below that can help.

We’ll talk about the biggest group life providers in the country, how they compare on rates to individual policies, and how to find out what you need to know about the insurance provider your employer has chosen for group benefits.

– Biggest Providers of Group Life

Let’s start with a look at the top group life providers in the United States and their share of the market, according to the Insurance Information Institute.

Insurance Company2018 Market Share
MetLife21%
Prudential9.9%
Securian7.4%
New York Life6.1%
Cigna5%
Unum Group4.8%
Lincoln National4%
Hartford Life & Accident3.9%
Nationwide3.9%
CVS Health Corp2.8%

As you can see from the numbers above, MetLife is far and away the biggest group life insurance provider in the country. But being the biggest doesn’t always make them the best.

Before you opt into a group life plan, take a look at the company’s reputation, including its financial standing. You’ll also want to know all about their policies and options. Our comprehensive company reviews can help.

One of the biggest disadvantages of group life is that you don’t have any say in which company carries it. What can you do if you aren’t happy with your company’s benefits provider?

You could certainly try appealing to your company’s HR department or the person in charge of selecting the group benefits provider. In a small company, there may be some room for employees to offer opinions on benefits, but in a larger company, odds are against any sort of change unless there are a lot of complaints.

In that situation, your best bet is to simply skip voluntary group life and buy your insurance from the company you prefer on the individual market.

– Group Life Rates

Group life rates are calculated differently from individual rates. When you apply for an individual policy, only factors that are specific to you will be considered.

These include your age, your health, your medical history, and even your driving record.

When calculating group life rates the insurance company looks at the group as a whole. No one person’s health will affect the rate, but the overall age of the company’s employees will.

If you work at a startup with a lot of young employees, that will skew the rates to the lower side. If your company has a lot of older people in the workforce, the rates will lean the other way.

Group rates may be lower than what you can get on the individual market, or they may be lower, depending on how your age and health compare to the general population in your company.

The only way to know which option is cheaper for you is to shop around and compare quotes from individual insurance companies to what’s being offered at work.

If you find cheaper rates on the individual market, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not worth taking the coverage available at work. Which plan is better for you, in the long run, depends on more than just that monthly premium.

Earlier, we discussed the advantage group life has in terms of flexibility in the death benefit. Because you can add more coverage without the need for a medical exam, it can be a very good choice for those that are unsure of their future need.

Since you can usually choose to opt into your group life plan at every open enrollment period, the good news is that if you do find out you need more coverage than what you’ve purchased as individual insurance, it’ll still be available to you.

Remember that when comparing premiums, look at the term length and the amount of the death benefit on the quote. The only fair quote comparison is one that is as close to “apples-to-apples” as possible.

The Bottom Line

So, is group life insurance through work enough? The final answer to that question is a solid maybe. It really does depend on your personal need for life insurance and on what your anticipated need is for the future. It also depends on whether your coverage is portable.

If you’re young, have no dependents, and have no debt that would require a lot of life insurance to pay off, that employer-paid policy might be enough, especially if it’s portable. But before you make that call, look to the future.

If you’re planning to one day have a family, own a home, run a business, or any other future change that would affect your need for life insurance, you may want to consider that future need right now.

It’s always cheaper to buy life insurance when you’re young. If the day is coming when you’ll likely need a larger amount than what you have through work, or if you know that coverage can’t go with you when you leave the job, that policy isn’t enough.

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