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Top 10 Pros and Cons of Variable Universal Life Insurance

Fact Checked by Jason Herring & Barry Brooksby
Licensed Agents & Life Insurance Experts.
As a licensed insurance agency, Insurance and Estates is committed to integrity in our editorial standards and transparency in how we receive compensation from our insurance partners.
Variable Universal Life

At I&E, we don’t try to pretend that there is one best life insurance policy or company. The “best” policy depends on your specific needs, goals and objectives. In some cases the “best” policy will be Variable Universal Life or VUL.

In the following article on VUL Insurance, we will cover the history of the product, what are the pros and cons associated with Variable Universal Life and when it is a good idea to choose a VUL policy.

So the questions become, ss VUL the best life insurance choice for you?

Let’s start with some basic definitions…

What is Variable Universal Life?

Variable Universal Life (VUL) is defined as a permanent type of cash value life insurance policy, in which the cash value can be invested into different accounts consisting, for example, of stocks, bonds and mutual funds.

Permanent life insurance is called such because it is in force permanently (as long as you pay your premium payments). This is in contrast to Term life insurance, which is for a set period of years (usually 10, 20 or 30 year terms).

Due to the fact that these separate accounts are investments in securities, such as stocks, these VUL policies are regulated under the federal securities laws. And you have to have a securities license in order to sell variable universal life policies. In other words, your normal, run of the mill, insurance agent is not allowed to sell VUL.

History of the VUL policy

Variable Life Insurance has been around since the early 1980s. During the middle of the 20th century term life insurance provided temporary coverage while Whole Life insurance provided coverage for those that needed it to last a lifetime (or longer than 20 years).

For more, see term life vs whole life insurance, where we break down the differences between the two types of policies.

In the 1980s when interest rates started rising many dividend paying whole life insurance policy owners saw increasing interest rates that did not reflect lower policy dividends. (One reason is life insurance dividends tend to go up at a slower rate than interest rates.)

So many people began to ask if there was a better option. Why not buy term insurance and invest the difference in some sort of money market account that was paying double the dividend rate of the whole life policy?

Americans started to cash in their whole life policies in droves. And the insurance companies were scrambling to figure out a solution.

Enter universal life insurance.

A universal life policy didn’t offer the guarantees of the whole life policy, but it did offer flexibility and potential growth comparable with the money market accounts that were so enticing to consumers.

For more on how these two compare, see whole life vs universal life.

Schedule a free consultation with our IUL expert

The ’80s

Just a few years later, in the middle of the ’80s, Whole Life policies were paying over 13%, while their counterpart Universal policies were only paying 7%.

Meanwhile the stock market was consistently averaging close to 15%. People wanted to buy term and invest the difference, and who could blame them.

In an effort to suppress the exodus from their products, the life insurance companies decided to add mutual funds to their cash value investment options – and thus the Variable Universal Life policy was born.

The VUL was just another form of permanent insurance, but now it could grab the healthy gains of the stock market.

VUL today

The VUL is still with us today, and the options for policy holders are far greater than when it was introduced.

It also has some other benefits that make this product a viable option for some people today.

But along with those benefits, there also happens to arise some negatives.

Our current picks for the…

Top 10 Variable Life Insurance Companies

The following carriers represent our current picks for the best variable universal life insurance companies in alphabetical order.

CompanyProductsA.M. Best Rating
AIGAG Platinum Choice VUL 2A
AXA IncentiveLife Optimizer III

IncentiveLife Legacy III
John HancockProtection VUL

Accumulation VUL
LincolnAsset Edge VUL

NationwideVariable Universal Life Accumulator

Variable Universal Life Protector
Pacific LifeSelect VUL-Accumulation

Prime VUL
PrincipalVUL Income IIIA+
Protective LifeInvestors Choice VULA+
PrudentialVUL ProtectorA+
SecurianAccumulator VUL

VUL Defender

Pros of Variable Universal Life

The following is a  list of the popular pros and cons of the variable universal life insurance policy. We here at I&E hope that this list will help provide just a little insight into this unique insurance and investment product.

Pro #1 – Death Benefit

The VUL is both an investment product AND a life insurance product. As such, it’s important to note that one of the major benefits over products that are just investments, is that there is an income tax free death benefit payout to the insurance beneficiary.

Money will never be able to replace the loss of a loved one, but avoiding the double-whammy of a family death and massive financial hardship is significant.

All life insurance products have a death benefit, so it may seem odd to discuss this as a pro, but ultimately it is the key aspect that is being purchased, so it shouldn’t be dismissed.

Also, keep in mind that this is permanent life insurance. This life insurance will not expire as long as you keep paying the premiums. It is different from term insurance which expires after a typical 20 or 30 years.

An additional benefit is you can add certain long-term care riders to your VUL policy to add additional protection if you are disabled and cannot perform 2 of 6 activities of daily living.

Finally, there is no endowment age with most VUL’s (the age at which the cash value equals the death benefit amount), allowing the policy to continue to grow as long as you live.

Pro #2 – Flexible Premiums

Just about any time you see the word “universal” in the name of an insurance policy, you can assume your premium payments will be flexible. In this case it is true with the VUL. The premiums can go up or down for a couple reasons.

  1. You can choose to raise or lower your death benefit. Keep in mind that in most cases increasing your death benefit will require proof of insurability.
  2. The performance of your cash value account may allow you to lower your premium.
Whole life vs Variable Universal Life

Whole Life insurance benefits include fixed premiums which can be supplemented through dividends, whereas Variable Universal Life has more flexibility built into the policy.

Many people like the fixed premium of whole life because they know what they have to pay and can budget accordingly.

With variable universal life, your premium can fluctuate up or down depending on various factors, including stock market performance. This can be a plus or minus depending on which side your policy falls on.

In contrast, whole life insurance is an asset that is non correlated to the stock market. That means that the performance of the stock market does not have a direct affect on the performance of your whole life policy. Rather, whole life acts as a safe bucket, that provides peace of mind away from Wall St.

Pro #3 – In the Market – Inflation Hedge – No Rate Cap

This third pro is the reason the Variable Universal Life policy was created. So policy holders could enter the investment market with their cash value.

By entering the market, the VUL provides a permanent life insurance product with NO RATE CAP, versus indexed universal life insurance that offers both a cap and floor.

If the mutual fund to which the cash value is invested returns a rate that exceeds 20%, the full amount is credited to the policy holder’s account (minus fees of course).

As a product that is fully entered into the stock market, the cash value has the luxury of gaining a hedge against inflation. If the economy is strong and booming, inflation will likely increase, and so will the cash value in this account.

The ability to participate fully in the market and still receive the tax benefits of life insurance is one of the primary reasons variable universal life is used in private placement life insurance.

Variable Universal Life vs Indexed Universal Life

Having no rate cap can be a huge advantage when comparing VUL vs IUL policies. VUL insurance policies have the ability to offer higher returns. Included with higher returns is the ability to lose principal in a down market.

With an Indexed Universal Life policy the max rate cap is around 12%. If the market goes up beyond that you will not participate in the additional gains from the index your policy is correlated with. Some IUL insurance policies offer no cap but have a lower participation rate.

No Floor

On the other side of the coin is with an IUL policy, there is a floor. The floor of your indexed universal life policy protects your policy from negative market returns. However, with a VUL policy, your loss is potentially unlimited, based on what the stock market does.

Pro #4 – Tax Advantaged

All cash value life insurance has distinct tax advantages, see is life insurance taxable.

Death benefits are paid out to beneficiaries tax-free. And all gains in cash value are tax-deferred.

However, there is a bonus that can make the product virtually tax-free for life – including the gains.

Taxes are typically only charged on withdrawals of the cash value. And even then, your withdrawals occur FIFO (First In – First Out), which means that the premiums you paid in to the cash value would have to be completely depleted before your withdrawals would be taxed.

Just to be clearer, your withdrawals will be tax free on the basis (premiums paid in). You will only be taxed on the growth of the account IF you withdraw beyond your basis.

But most people don’t choose to withdraw their money because that lowers their cash value – and thus their potential earning. Instead they choose life insurance policy loans – which we’ll discuss next.

In addition to these advantages, you don’t have the early withdrawal penalties and the required minimum distributions that the IRS forces on the other tax deferred products.

Pro #5 – Cash Value / Policy Loans

The variable life insurance policy is a cash value life insurance product. As such, a certain amount of the premium goes toward the cost of insurance while the remainder goes to the cash value.

This cash value is invested in a number of ways across the different permanent life insurance products. The VUL gives the policy holder the option to invest in securities which are not available to any other type of life insurance.

The cash value portion of the policy is the engine that makes the policy work. Without the cash value, the premiums would eventually rise very high and the policy would likely lapse.

But if the cash value is invested wisely, and the investments perform well, the cash value may grow faster than any other life insurance product, making a VUL a potentially great choice when implementing a life insurance retirement plan.

You don’t have to withdraw your money to access it!

Life insurance policy loans are a unique way in which many policy holders access their cash value without incurring any tax hit. In addition they don’t reduce their cash value.

It is true that they pay interest on the loan, but they also receive a dividend on the cash value (which is the pool the loan was pulled from).

This arbitrage can work in your favor. Or in many cases can just mean that you have a wash loan – it costs you nothing.

Many people with VUL policies take out policy loans at or near 0%, and use the money well into retirement for a variety of wants and needs.

When the insured ultimately dies, the death benefit is paid minus the outstanding loans. But again, the death benefit is tax-free to the beneficiaries.

So far this product may sound like it’s perfect, but there are a few negatives.

Variable Universal Life Cons

Con #1 – More Risk / In the Market

Whole Life insurance offers guarantees. Variable Universal Life does not offer guarantees.

When the savings component of the insurance policy is separated from the death benefit, the risk is transferred to the policy holder.

The VUL allows the policy holder to use the savings account to invest in various financial markets, and those markets are not guaranteed. Without guarantees the policy holder is required to accept risk.

The risk of a variable life policy is acceptable only because there is hopefully a comparable amount of reward. In other words, the risks are warranted because of the rewards.

We talked about the rewards of the VUL above when we mentioned they have no rate cap. The higher possible returns are the carrot that entices the consumer into the VUL.

With Variable Universal Life policies your cash value can drop dramatically in a very short period of time.

In 2008, there were mutual funds that lost more than 50% of their value in just a few short months. That means there is tremendous risk for those that choose to enter that market.

If you are considering a Variable Universal Life policy, please weigh the risks of market exposure.

Con #2 – Higher Cost

Due to the fact that the VUL cash value is being invested in the financial markets, there are additional oversight, policy charges and management fees. So the VUL typically has a higher cost per year than a comparable Universal Life policy.


Many financial advisors will recommend buying term insurance and investing the rest in low cost ETF’s or money market funds.

This strategy provides protection while also enjoying the market gains of financial markets. However, this strategy is not a form of permanent insurance coverage, and therefore isn’t an apples to apples comparison.

Besides, no one actually buys term, figures out the difference in price between term and permanent coverage, and then invests accordingly.

And what this tired mantra fails to take into account is the tremendous leverage associated with the life insurance death benefit, missing from any mutual fund.

Further, as mentioned above, private placement life insurance benefits by using the tax incentives allotted to life insurance by the IRS.

If you want permanent insurance and also want the ability to use the cash value to invest in the financial markets, you’ll likely have to pay more in policy expenses.

Not all VUL’s have the same fees, so make sure you do a cost comparison with a trusted life insurance strategist before you sign up.

Con #3 – Complicated / Requires Management

It’s also true that a VUL can be complicated. This is especially true when compared with other forms of life insurance.

With Variable Life you have the option, and responsibility, to manage multiple investment accounts. You can invest in mutual funds, or money market funds, or even hedge funds.

The policies today often offer 50 or more separate accounts covering an incredible variety of asset classes and management styles. The separate accounts are organized as trusts to be managed for the benefit of the policy holder.

They are called separate because they are not included with the ‘general account’ of the life insurance company. In this way they are similar to mutual funds, but have different regulatory requirements and investment risks.

Ultimately the variety of options and responsibilities provided to the policy holder requires greater oversight and knowledge. All that to say – the Variable Universal Life policy can be complicated.

Con #4 – Premiums may Rise / Account suffers Loss

The additional complexity and variety of a VUL, along with the added risk, comes the potential for loss. If you you lose your cash value, or you lose a substantial amount of your cash value, the policy will be in jeopardy.

With a VUL the insurance company has passed the risk to the policy holder, in exchange for greater choice and potential gains. But ultimately the death benefit has to be paid.

Therefore the insurance company needs to raise premiums to meet their actuarial targets. The cash value of your VUL policy needs to meet certain targets (seen in your prospectus), or the policy premiums will need to rise. If you don’t pay the increased premiums, the policy will likely lapse, or will need to be modified.

With most permanent life insurance there are guarantees against loss. Some are greater than others, but with the Variable Universal Life policies, the risk of loss is greatest. You are responsible for your investment risk and will need to diversify accordingly.

It is true that many insurers offer guaranteed death benefits up to a certain age, as long as premiums are paid. But this is not much of a guarantee as it really only amounts to a term policy rider.

Schedule a free consultation with our IUL expert

Con #5 – No True Guarantees

I guess this is pretty obvious by now, but we thought it should be spelled out – no true guarantees. Whole Life has a guarantee. Universal Life has a guarantee. Variable Universal Life does not have a guarantee. At least not a true guarantee in the same sense as the WL and UL policies.

As mentioned above the VUL can provide a death benefit guarantee up through a certain age. But that is really just the bare minimum and is no better than Term. The separate accounts can gain or lose at any rate the market chooses. As such the risk is on your shoulders as a policy holder.

  • Whole Life offers guaranteed growth and a guaranteed death benefit.
  • Universal Life offers a guaranteed minimum annually and a guaranteed death benefit.
  • Variable Universal Life offers a temporary guarantee on the death benefit – that’s it.

For those that believe they have the skills to increase their cash value almost every year – the VUL is a fantastic tax incentivized option. But don’t expect any true guarantees.


As with all forms of life insurance there are advantages and disadvantages to the Variable Universal Life policy.

For those people that are savvy investors, and yet want their investments tied to a life insurance product – the VUL is a great option.

For others, and I would even say for most, the VUL doesn’t offer enough advantages to outweigh the additional risk.

If you’re considering a permanent life insurance policy, including variable universal life insurance, and you want to get some solid advice, contact us today. We highly recommend talking with a qualified life insurance professional when making important financial decisions.

30 comments… add one
  • Tony Nikolas August 29, 2018, 6:13 am

    What about the MEC??

    • Maurice Miller September 13, 2018, 7:06 pm

      What do you mean?

      • Nam November 30, 2020, 7:27 pm

        MEC is Modified Endowment Contract to which he is referring.

  • universal life insurance September 24, 2018, 3:17 am

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on life cover. Regards

  • life assurance policy October 5, 2018, 1:44 pm

    Fine way of telling, and good post to get facts about my
    presentation subject, which i am going to convey in institution of higher education.

    • Insurance&Estates October 5, 2018, 2:23 pm

      Thanks for visiting and your kind feedback!



  • Anonymous January 14, 2019, 9:32 am

    What about eligibility? Are those with pre-existing conditions more likely to receive coverage due to risk being shared not just by policy owners but also by the risk assumed by the market? Do disability benefits exist under this insurance type? If so, those would be two additional pros.

    • Insurance&Estates January 18, 2019, 10:22 am

      Thanks for visiting Insurance and Estates. Good question. The general answer is that we have clients that are often approved with pre-existing conditions. Insurance companies are much better now than they used to be concerning clients that do not have perfect health. Also, the type of policy does not matter to an insurance company and approvals are based upon a combination of health and financial underwriting. There are several options currently that include waiver of premium and disability riders. Give us a call or e-mail contact information and we will have one of our Pro Client Guides reach out to you. Best, Steve Gibbs

  • Suzanne Bilbrey November 7, 2019, 10:27 am

    My financial advisor is “brokering” a quote for me on this, and I was confused as to why. Is it because I will have to assign that responsibility/authority to him to manage? and I’m assuming charging for the investment privilege ? I am concerned that I was being sold on the “rider” for allowing for withdrawal for long term care (with the 2/6 life function determination) but if the value can actually go down, is that the right way to look at it? If I’m expecting to be able to withdraw the full value of the death benefit as LTC costs, and the value isn’t there, then I am limited to the cash value amount?

    • Insurance&Estates November 8, 2019, 7:23 am

      Hello Suzanne, thanks for your comment and reading. I believe you’re concerns are valid, as it is common to see financial advisors with little knowledge of life insurance or long term care pursue solutions through a third party relationship. This can be okay if all disclosed and the 3rd party is an expert with the products, etc. It sounds like you’re concerned about costs and should ask for full disclosure. I can’t really speak to the actual products, rider or other questions as I have no direct knowledge of them. You’re welcome to seek a second opinion from our Sales Director and Long Term Care expert Jason Herring by e-mailing him at jason@insuranceandestates.com to set up a discussion.


      Steve Gibbs, for I&E.

  • JD November 11, 2019, 9:59 pm

    You didn’t list New York Life’s AA+ rating on the A.M. Best ratings

    • Insurance&Estates November 16, 2019, 12:09 pm

      Hello JD, we were a bit confused by your comment because NY Life isn’t known for variable products and you’re comment relates to that article. Thanks for reading and commenting.


      Steve Gibbs, Esq.

      • Jim January 27, 2021, 2:40 pm

        Not true! I have a VUL with New York Life. I believe other highly rated mutual companies have them as well, like Northwestern.

        • Insurance&Estates February 2, 2021, 7:57 am

          Northwestern isn’t likely. Interesting that NY Life offers one, their flagship product however is whole life. We don’t really promote these or sell them, so thanks for your feedback.

          Best, Steve Gibbs, for I&E.

  • Kristianne November 15, 2019, 5:56 pm

    Nov. 16, 2019

    Hello Sir,
    I don’t really know what is happening with sunlife but my VUL insurance is not progressing, in fact i am losing Php50000+ on my investment. i started my VUL on 2015 with a 5 year term of payment (Phpp80K/year i was 29 years old), 1 more year before I finish paying. i picked peso balance fund with starting unit price of Php3.1578 and peso bond fund with starting price of Php2.0029 as the investment linked on my insurance. now four years later, unit price is at 3.3459 and 2.1589 which is i think is too low. January 2019 is when is my highest loss, PHP74,000+. what do you think? should i pull out my insurance or not? all those numbers in the projected fund value my agent gave me never came true, tsk tsk. i also heard from one of my colleague, he has a mutual fund account in sunlife and for 5 years the increase is only Php600.00. what the heck sunlife? really, i think your the only one getting the goods on these transactions. why oh why? Any advice?

    • Insurance&Estates November 16, 2019, 12:13 pm

      Hello Kristianne, thank you for your comment; however, this is a very detailed question that requires an in depth look at your policy. I’ve asked Jason Herring to reach out to you as he is an expert at analyzing and explaining universal life products.


      Steve Gibbs for I&E

    • Queenie September 23, 2020, 2:10 am

      Same here.Happened in my Manulife. It’s been more than 5 yrs now and I have not enjoy the so-colled interest earned.I really regret in getting Manulife. I have pay my premium P3k for 5 yrs if I put this in a bank at least there will be interest earned even small amount rather than these the cash value has been so low. I dont when will I enjoy the said interest. Imagined, we tried to invest and the agent keep on promising us after 5 yrs for sure your money will grow..Haizz..so for young professionals out there…think more than a hundred times before investing in VUL eventually you will regret if you will see your money that you invest never gain..

      • Insurance&Estates September 24, 2020, 9:23 am

        Hello Kristianne, thanks for your comment. While we talk about a lot of different types of life insurance for various purposes, variable is not a product that our experts tend to favor for most people. Generally, we like to see folks utilize high cash value whole life instead, as it offers a guaranteed return, plus historically documented dividends, plus tax advantages. Feel free to explore this option in more detail by initiating a conversation with our Whole Life expert Barry Brooksby at barry@insuranceandestates.com.

        Best, Steve Gibbs for I&E.

  • Trudie Freed January 25, 2020, 9:53 am

    Is Penn Mutual a good company for having my VUL IV with? Also is there a difference between a VUL and a VUL IV? If so, what?

    • Insurance&Estates January 27, 2020, 8:35 am

      Hello Trudy, thanks for commenting. I recommend you connect with Jason Herring on this question at jason@insuranceandestates.com.

      Best, Steve Gibbs for I&E

  • New Financial Advisor January 26, 2020, 5:28 pm

    I just recently started applying to be a financial advisor. While I’m still training, I’m trying to learn as much as I can. I’ve been reading articles and blogs, and it seems that most financial managers seem to really dislike VULs. They recommend not to combine insurance and investments, mainly because of the high cost and possibly low returns. Can the costs be worth it? And is it really just for financially illiterate or lazy people?

  • Joshua Mills September 24, 2020, 7:03 pm

    In my opinion VUL has a lot of benefits but the “best” policy depends on your specific needs, goals and objectives.

    Joshua Mills

    • Insurance&Estates September 25, 2020, 9:25 am

      Hi Joshua, thanks for commenting. We agree, there is no one size fits all best policy and each person’s goals and situation should be carefully reviewed in order to determine the best fit.

      Sincerely, I&E

  • Mykee Carlo October 25, 2020, 7:51 am

    Is vul retirement plan good for me,? I’m 26 yrs.old and I thought that this is perfect for me.. it will end in my 65th yrs.old. is this worthing,?
    It has a minimum coverage which prioritized investment.. which I preferd

    • Insurance&Estates October 26, 2020, 10:44 am

      Hello, depending on your goals, VULs may or may not be ideal. For an in depth look with an expert, you can connect with Jason Herring at jason@insuranceandestates.com.

      Best, Steve Gibbs for I&E.

  • Carlos Fragela March 27, 2021, 12:43 pm

    Hello, I found this very helpful and I have a couple of questions.
    At this moment, I’m on the fence whether getting the VUL or not. I am currently working with an insurance agent who is doing all my paperwork for the 403b and also he’s encouraging me into getting VUL. To summarize, the way he explained it to me I though it was fantastic. He told me he can guarantee an 8 percent investment grow. My premium is only $56 monthly, and the rest will be cash value. So Im going for $200 monthly payments and $56 of that is premium which covers me for a $250,000 death benefit value. So according to the chart he showed me I will be making $40000 in 15 years in just cash value. He told me I can withdraw any amount of money with no penalties. Should I go for it?

    • Insurance&Estates April 6, 2021, 12:47 pm

      Hi Carlos, I definitely cannot advise you to go with any product or strategy in a blog post comment. If you’re interested in specific advice, I recommend you connect with Jason Herring at jason@insuranceandestates.com who handles our VUL inquiries.

      Best, Steve Gibbs, Esq.

  • Lynette June 26, 2021, 9:13 pm

    I purchased a VUL IV via my local agent and it is through Midland National. I knew very little about the details when I purchased it and over the years I have felt some concern, however, as I look at the plan now and analyze it I can understand the many benefits. The initial amount of coverage was for $250,000. I have had the policy in place now for 20 years and as the cash value has now grown to just under $120,000 the death benefit has also increased and is now nearly $370,000. I have the ability to borrow a sizeable portion of the cash value at no interest without harming the policy in any way except for my beneficiaries would have a reduction in death benefit by the amount I borrow. Meanwhile, for the past 20 years, I have been fully insured. Additionally, the total dollar amount I have paid out in premiums over the past 20 years is less than the $120,000 cash value I have increased by.

    I realize that a drop in the market can impact the cash value of my fund, however, as I look at it now, I don’t know of any other way to be insured at basically no cost unless you take into account what I MIGHT have done with the money instead. But it is just as likely that I could have spent it on something of no lasting value, whereas once I had money sunk into the policy, I was not going to simply change my mind.

    I am grateful I was finally able to understand the true benefit to me and my family because I frequently had experienced concerns and wondered if I had made a horrible financial decision. To any who DO choose a VUL, my biggest advice is to be sure you carefully analyze your investment options and spread the money across several funds. The funds that do well one quarter do not always do great the next quarter, so be sure to check the long-term record of the investment choice or % return since inception and rebalance your investments when necessary.

    Also, make sure you work with an agent you trust and feel comfortable asking questions. Do your research and don’t make decisions just because you feel pressured. If you have the discipline to ALWAYS pay yourself by investing monthly, then go ahead and buy term and invest on your own. It is unfortunate that the math common-core is not based on personal finance! It is the one type of math that will make the biggest difference to each of us individually throughout our lives. Maybe it is time for a change!!!

  • oliver george April 7, 2022, 12:11 pm

    Private placement life insurance is not available in all countries and has been proven to be beneficial for high-income individuals who have a large estate in countries where it has been legalized

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