What is a Participating Life Insurance Policy?

min read
Updated: 18 May 2024
Written by
Bob Phillips
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Understanding life insurance can often seem complicated, but knowing the pieces is crucial for the financial security of your family. A participating life insurance policy is one such piece, offering a blend of protection and potential financial benefits.

If you’re seeking clear and concise information about this type of coverage, you’ve come to the right place. Buying life insurance is a profoundly unselfish act, providing your loved ones with stability in the face of uncertainty, and ensuring that you’re prepared for the future. Participating life insurance might just be the right coverage for you.

For over 15 years, I’ve been assisting families with finding the life insurance coverage that best meets their needs. My goal is to use this experience to guide you through the specifics of participating life insurance policies. With the right knowledge, you can make an informed decision that aligns with your long-term financial goals and provides the kind of security you’re seeking.

Key Takeaways

  • A participating policy lets you share in the insurance company’s profits in the form of dividends or  bonuses.

  • Participating whole life insurance often comes with higher premiums than non-participating policies.

  • Policyholders have a number of options to choose from when deciding how they would like to use their dividends.

What Is a Participating Life Insurance Policy?

A participating life insurance policy is a type of whole life insurance that pays dividends to the policyholder, which can be used to reduce premiums, accumulate cash value, or purchase additional coverage.

The cost of a participating life insurance policy is influenced by several factors, including the insured’s age, health, and the amount of coverage purchased. Premiums are typically higher than non-participating policies because they offer the potential for dividend payments. These dividends are not guaranteed and depend on the insurer’s financial performance, which is tied to factors like investment earnings, mortality rates, and expenses.

Participating life insurance policies are often offered by mutual insurance companies. Unlike stock insurance companies, mutual companies are owned by the policyholders, not external investors. This structure means that policyholders of participating policies can benefit directly from the company’s success through dividends. These dividends reflect the company’s surplus, which is the amount left over after claims, expenses, and other liabilities have been paid.

What Is a Non-Participating Life Insurance Policy?

A non-participating life insurance policy is a type of life insurance that doesn’t pay dividends to the policyholder. In these policies, the premiums, death benefits, and any cash value are determined at the start of the policy and do not change based on the insurance company’s financial performance.

Because there are no dividends, these policies are usually less expensive than participating policies. The benefit structure, including premiums and death benefits, is guaranteed and remains consistent throughout the policy’s life, providing a stable and predictable insurance option for policyholders.

Participating vs. Non-Participating Policies

A participating insurance policy is one where the policyholder shares the insurer’s profits in the form of dividends or bonuses. These dividends are not guaranteed and depend on the insurer’s financial performance. The policyholder, in this case, ‘participates’ in the profits.

On the other hand, a non-participating insurance policy does not provide any dividends or bonuses to the policyholder. The premiums, death benefits, and savings are determined at the time of policy issuance and do not change throughout the policy term. The policyholder does not ‘participate’ in the profits of the insurance company.

Aspect Participating Insurance Non-Participating Insurance
Dividends/Bonuses Policyholders may receive dividends/bonuses based on the insurer’s profits. No dividends or bonuses are provided to policyholders.
Premiums May be higher due to the potential for dividends. Generally lower as there are no dividends.
Risk Lower risk due to profit-sharing. Higher risk as there are no profit-sharing provisions.
Returns Potential for higher returns due to dividends. Returns are generally lower and fixed.

How Much Does a Participating Life Insurance Policy Cost?

The cost of a participating life insurance policy depends on several factors, such as the individual’s age, health status, lifestyle, and the policy’s terms and conditions. The average cost of whole life insurance (which can be a participating policy) can vary greatly based on these elements.

Let’s consider an example to illustrate this.

John is a healthy, non-smoking 40-year-old looking for a participating life insurance policy. Based on average rates from various sources, we can estimate that his monthly premium will be around $425 per month.

The potential for dividends could offset some of this cost over time. Remember, dividends are not guaranteed and depend on the insurer’s financial performance.

What are Your Dividend Options?

Dividends in participating life insurance policies are returns of excess premiums paid by the policyholders. These dividends are typically earned when the insurance company’s actual life insurance and investment experiences are better than expected. Factors like lower-than-projected claims, favorable market returns, and efficient operations can generate surplus funds, which the company may then distribute to its participating policyholders in the form of dividends.

Policyholders have a number of options to choose from when deciding how they would like to use their dividends:

Dividend Option 1: Cash Payments

Policyholders may choose to receive their dividends as direct cash payments. This is a straightforward option where the insurer sends you the amount of the dividend declared on your policy each year.

Dividend Option 2: Reduced Premiums

Dividends can be used to reduce premium payments. Essentially, the dividend amount is applied to lower the out-of-pocket cost of the policy’s premium due for the upcoming year.

Dividend Option 3: Accumulate at Interest

Another choice is to leave the dividends with the insurance company to accumulate at a specified rate of interest. The dividends will earn interest, often at a competitive rate, and this can increase the total cash value over time.

Dividend Option 4: Paid-Up Additions

Dividends can be used to purchase additional paid-up life insurance, increasing the death benefit and cash value of the original policy. These additions are fully paid for and accrue cash value themselves.

Dividend Option 5: Term Insurance

Some insurers allow dividends to be used to buy one-year term insurance, adding temporary additional coverage on top of the base policy, usually without requiring further evidence of insurability.

Dividend Option 6: Left to Accumulate

Lastly, dividends can simply be left to accumulate within the policy without collecting interest. This option might be used to eventually pay premiums or to purchase paid-up additions later on.

Understanding these options allows policyholders to tailor their participating life insurance policy dividends to their personal financial goals and needs.

Why Choose Participating Over Non-Participating Life Insurance?

Choosing between participating and non-participating life insurance policies boils down to individual financial goals, risk tolerance, and preferences for potential returns versus guaranteed costs.

Participating policies are often chosen for their potential to earn dividends, which can effectively decrease the net cost of the insurance or enhance its value through reinvestment into the policy. These dividends, while not guaranteed, can be a form of profit-sharing and offer a way for policyholders to benefit from the insurer’s financial performance.

This could be particularly appealing to those who are looking for an insurance product that can potentially grow over time and contribute to their overall financial strategy.

On the other hand, non-participating policies are favored for their predictability and typically lower premiums. The guaranteed nature of the premiums, death benefit, and any cash value appeals to those who value stability and are perhaps more risk-averse.

There is no reliance on the insurer’s financial performance, as there are no dividends in play, making budgeting and financial planning more straightforward.

Factors that influence this decision include:

  1. Financial Objectives: If your goal is cash value accumulation and potential growth, a participating policy might be preferable.
  2. Risk Tolerance: Those with a lower risk tolerance may opt for the guaranteed costs associated with non-participating policies.
  3. Cost Considerations: If initial lower costs are a priority, non-participating policies usually have lower premiums.
  4. Long-Term Perspective: Participating policies may offer better long-term value through dividends, which can be used to purchase additional coverage or to reduce premiums.
  5. Economic Conditions: In a strong economy, participating policies might yield higher dividends; however, during downturns, dividends can decrease.
  6. Company Performance: With participating policies, the insurer’s financial health and management decisions can impact your returns, making the selection of a reputable company crucial.
  7. Personal Preferences for Flexibility: Participating policies often provide more options for using dividends, which can be attractive for those who appreciate financial flexibility.

Ultimately, the choice between participating and non-participating life insurance should be made after considering these factors and how they align with your financial plan. Consulting with a financial advisor can also provide personalized insights to make the most suitable choice for your situation.

Is a Participating Policy Right for Me?

A participating life insurance policy could be a fitting choice for you if you’re looking for a policy that does more than just provide a death benefit. Here are some benefits that come with participating policies:

  1. Dividend Earnings: As mentioned, these policies have the potential to earn dividends, which can be used in a variety of beneficial ways – such as reducing premiums, increasing cash value, or even providing a stream of income.
  2. Enhanced Cash Value Growth: Dividends can be reinvested into the policy to buy paid-up additions, which increase both the death benefit and the cash value faster than the guaranteed growth alone.
  3. Flexible Financial Tool: The dividends and the growth of the cash value can serve as a financial tool during your lifetime. You can borrow against the policy’s cash value for personal needs or opportunities, often at favorable interest rates.
  4. Estate Planning Benefits: The added cash value and death benefit from reinvested dividends can be a boon for estate planning, providing a larger legacy for your beneficiaries.
  5. Inflation Protection: Over time, the value of a fixed death benefit can be eroded by inflation. The potential growth in a participating policy can help mitigate this effect.
  6. Ownership in the Insurance Company: With mutual companies, as a policyholder, you’re effectively an owner. This can sometimes translate to having a say in company decisions through voting rights.
  7. Tax-Advantaged Dividends: Dividends are generally considered a return of premium and are not taxable until they exceed the total premiums paid.
  8. Potential for Improved Returns: While not guaranteed, in a strong financial market, the returns on a participating policy can potentially outpace those of a savings account or certificate of deposit (CD), with the added benefit of life insurance coverage.

It’s important to weigh these benefits against the typically higher cost of participating policies compared to non-participating ones and to consider your long-term financial goals and needs. If these features align with your financial strategy and you’re comfortable with the involvement required to manage the dividends, a participating policy could indeed be the right choice for you.

Why Might a Participating Policy Not Be Right for You?

While participating life insurance policies offer a range of benefits, they might not be the perfect fit for you. Here are some drawbacks that could make you reconsider if a participating policy is right for you:

  1. Higher Premiums: Generally, participating policies come with higher premiums than non-participating ones. If budget constraints are a primary concern, this could be a significant factor.
  2. Dividend Variability: Dividends are not guaranteed; they are subject to the insurance company’s performance and economic conditions. If you prefer certainty over potential, this could be a downside.
  3. Complexity: Participating policies can be more complex due to the various options for using dividends, which might be overwhelming for someone looking for a straightforward insurance product.
  4. Long-Term Perspective Needed: The benefits of a participating policy, especially those related to dividends, often require a long-term commitment. If your financial goals or insurance needs are short-term, this might not align well.
  5. Investment Risk Exposure: Since dividends are tied to the insurer’s profits, which are influenced by their investment performance, there’s an element of investment risk involved.
  6. Opportunity Cost: The higher premiums of participating policies could represent an opportunity cost. You might find that investing the difference in premium costs between a participating and a non-participating policy could yield better returns elsewhere.
  7. Underperformance Risk: If the insurance company’s investments underperform, the dividends can be lower than projected, affecting the expected value of the policy.
  8. Less Flexibility to Switch: Given the higher initial costs and the time it takes to reap the benefits of a participating policy, you might find it less flexible if you want to switch policies or insurers down the line.
  9. Potential for Misleading Illustrations: Sometimes, illustrations of potential dividends can be overly optimistic, leading to expectations that may not be met.
  10. Financial Health of the Insurer: The financial stability and management of the insurance company are more critical in a participating policy. If the company doesn’t manage its portfolio well, policyholders might see fewer dividends.

If you prioritize straightforward coverage, lower premiums, and less financial exposure to an insurer’s investment performance, then a non-participating policy could be a better option. It’s essential to carefully consider these factors in light of your financial situation and goals before making a decision.


What are the disadvantages of participating life insurance?

Participating whole life insurance often comes with higher premiums than non-participating policies. The dividends are not guaranteed, and the policies can be complex, requiring a long-term commitment.

Is a participating life insurance policy good?

A participating life insurance policy can be good if you value potential dividends, a share in the insurer’s profits, and don’t mind higher premiums for these potential benefits.

Is a participating policy worth it?

A participating policy may be worth it if you are looking for a long-term investment with the possibility of dividends, and you’re comfortable with the associated risks and costs.

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