Variable Universal Life Insurance, often shortened to VUL, is a type of life insurance that builds a cash value. In a VUL, the cash value can be invested in a wide variety of separate accounts, similar to mutual funds, and the choice of which of the available separate accounts to use is entirely up to the contract owner.
The 'variable' component in the name refers to this ability to invest in separate accounts whose values vary—they vary because they are invested in stock and/or bond markets. The 'universal' component in the name refers to the flexibility the owner has in making premium payments.
The premiums can vary from nothing in a given month up to maximums defined by the Internal Revenue Code for life insurance. This flexibility is in contrast to whole life insurance that has fixed premium payments that typically cannot be missed without lapsing the policy (although one may exercise an Automatic Premium Loan feature, or surrender dividends to pay a Whole Life premium).
Variable universal life is a type of permanent life insurance, because the death benefit will be paid if the insured dies any time as long as there is sufficient cash value to pay the costs of insurance in the policy. With most if not all VULs, unlike whole life, there is no endowment age (the age at which the cash value equals the death benefit amount, which for whole life is typically 100).
If investments made in the separate accounts out-perform the general account of the insurance company, a higher rate-of-return can occur than the fixed rates-of-return typical for whole life.
The combination over the years of no endowment age, continually increasing death benefit, and if a high rate-of-return is earned in the separate accounts of a VUL policy, this could result in higher value to the owner or beneficiary than that of a whole life policy with the same amounts of money paid in as premiums. Risks of variable universal life can be such as these:
the cost of insurance for VULs is generally based on term rates and as the insured ages, the risk of mortality increases, increasing the cost of insurance. If not monitored properly the cost of insurance may eventually exceed the cash outlay depleting savings. If this continues long term the savings will be depleted and insured will be given an option to increase the cash outlay to cover the higher cost of insurance or cancel the policy leaving them with no savings and either no insurance, or very expensive insurance.
the cash needed to effectively use a VUL is generally much higher than other types of insurance policies. If a policy does not have the right amount of funding, it may lapse.
Complexity – the VUL is a complex product, and can easily be used (or sold) inappropriately because of this. Proper funding, investing, and planning are usually required in order for the VUL to work as expected.