"Whole Life Insurance", or "Whole of Life Assurance" (in the Commonwealth), is a life insurance policy that remains in force for the insured's whole life and requires (in most cases) premiums to be paid every year into the policy.
All values related to the policy (death benefits, cash surrender values, premiums) are usually determined at policy issue, for the life of the contract, and usually cannot be altered after issue. This means that the insurance company assumes all risk of future performance versus the actuaries' estimates. If future claims are underestimated, the insurance company makes up the difference. On the other hand, if the actuaries' estimates on future death claims are high, the insurance company will retain the difference.
In a participating policy, the insurance company shares the excess profits (variously called dividends or refunds) with the policyholder. The greater the success of the company's performance, the greater the dividend.
Similar to non-participating, except that the premium may vary year to year. However, the premium will never exceed the maximum premium guaranteed in the policy.
A blending of participating and term life insurance, wherein a portion of the dividends is used to purchase additional term insurance. This can generally yield a higher death benefit, at a cost to long term cash value. In some policy years the dividends may be below projections, causing the death benefit in those years to decrease.
A form of limited pay, where the pay period is a single large payment up front. These policies typically have fees during early policy years should the policyholder cash it in.
Similar to a participating policy, but instead of paying annual premiums for life, they are only due for a certain number of years, such as 20. The policy may also be set up to be fully paid up at a certain age, such as 65 or 80. The policy itself continues for the life of the insured. These policies would typically cost more up front, since the insurance company needs to build up sufficient cash value within the policy during the payment years to fund the policy for the remainder of the insured's life.
The policies are a mixture of traditional whole life and universal life. Instead of using dividends to augment guaranteed cash value accumulation, the interest on the policy's cash value varies with current market conditions. Like whole life, death benefit remains constant for life. Like universal life, the premium payment might vary, but not above the maximum premium guaranteed within the policy.
Whole life insurance typically requires that the owner pay premiums for the life of the policy. There are some arrangements that let the policy be "paid up", which means that no further payments are ever required, in as few as 5 years, or with even a single large premium. Typically if the payor doesn't make a large premium payment at the outset of the life insurance contract, then he is not allowed to begin making them later in the contract life.
The company generally will guarantee that the policy's cash values will increase regardless of the performance of the company or its experience with death claims (compared to universal life insurance and variable universal life insurance which can increase the costs and decrease the cash values of the policy).
Cash values are considered liquid enough to be used for investment capital, but only if the owner is financially healthy enough to continue making premium payments. Cash value access is tax free up to the point of total premiums paid, and the rest may be accessed tax free in the form of policy loans. If the policy lapses, taxes would be due on outstanding loans. If the insured dies, death benefit is reduced by the amount of any outstanding loan balance.