Q&A: Should your retirement savings plan include life insurance? Here are some pros and cons

Dear Liz: Are indexed universal life insurance products worthwhile, and how do they compare to a Roth IRA?

Answer: Both offer the potential for tax-free distributions in retirement, but indexed universal life insurance is a complex product with high expenses that’s not a good fit for most investors.

With a Roth IRA, virtually all of your money can go toward your retirement investment. (Most investments have fees of some kind, but you can minimize those by using exchange traded funds or low-cost index funds.) With permanent life insurance, some of your money goes toward paying premiums for the death benefit and other administrative expenses, including commissions for the person who sells you the policy. The remaining cash can be invested in accounts that are tied to the performance of a stock market index. Your principal is guaranteed, but the amount you earn is subject to caps.

Financial planners generally recommend that you first max out other retirement savings options, such as 401(k)s and IRAs, before considering investing through a life insurance policy. Also, you should be someone who needs permanent life insurance — the kind that is meant to cover you for the rest of your life. (Term insurance, by contrast, is a much less expensive option meant to cover you for a set term, such as 20 years.)

Some people do need permanent coverage. Their estates may be large enough to incur estate taxes that they want to pay with insurance, for example. Or they may have a special needs child who will require ongoing support. If you need permanent coverage, consider hiring a fee-only financial planner to help you sort through your options.