Universal life is was developed from whole life insurance. The potential advantage of the universal life policy is in its flexibility and the potential for greater cash value growth if the interest rates offered outperform the insurer's general account (that whole life policy cash value growth is based on). Universal life is more flexible than whole life in two primary ways: the death benefit and usually the premium payment are flexible.
The death benefit can be increased (subject to insurability) and decreased without surrendering the policy or getting a new one as would be required with whole life. Also a range of premium payments can be made to the policy, from a minimum amount to cover various guarantees the policy may offer to the maximum amount allowed by IRS rules.
The primary difference is that the universal life policy shifts some of the risk for maintaining the death benefit to the insured. In a whole life policy, as long as every premium payment is made, the death benefit is guaranteed to be paid if the insured dies. In a UL the policy will lapse (the death benefit will no longer be in force) if the cash value or premium payments are not enough to cover the cost of insurance. To make their policies more attractive insurers often add guarantees, where if certain premium payments are made for a given period, the policy will remain in force even if the cash value drops to zero.
Single Premium UL is paid for by a single, substantial, initial payment. The policy remains in force so long as the COI charges have not depleted the account. Since changes in the tax code, this type of policy is now called a "Modified Endowment Contract (MEC)" and is subject to different tax treatment. All policies paid up in 5 or less years are subject to this same negative tax treatment.
Fixed Premium UL is paid for by periodic premium payments. Generally these payments will be for a shorter period of time than the policy is in force; for example payments may be made for 10 years, with the intention that thereafter the policy is paid-up. If the experience of the plan is not as good as predicted, the account value at the end of the premium period may not be adequate to continue the policy as originally written. In this case, the policyholder may have the choice to either: 1. Leave the policy alone, and let it potentially expire early (if COI charges deplete the account), or 2. Make additional or higher premium payments, to keep the death benefit level, or 3. Lower the death benefit.
Flexible Premium UL allows the policyholder to determine how much they wish to pay each time premium is due. In addition, Flexible Premium UL offers two different death benefit options: 1. A level death benefit (often called Option A), or 2. A level amount at risk (often called Option B). This is also referred to as an increasing death benefit. Policyholders frequently buy Flexible Premium UL with a large initial deposit, thereafter making payments irregularly.
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 volatile investments similar to mutual funds.
The 'universal' component in the name is a bit of a misnomer that is used to refer 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.