Both term insurance and permanent insurance use exactly the same mortality tables for calculating the cost of insurance, and a death benefit which is income tax free, as long as the policy is in force and premiums are current; however, the premiums are substantially different.
The reason the costs are substantially different is that term programs may expire without paying out, while permanent programs must always pay out eventually. To address this, some permanent programs have built in cash accumulation vehicles to force the insured to “self-insure”, making the programs many times more expensive.
Other permanent life insurance policies do not have built in cash values. The policy owner may have the option of paying additional premium in the early years of the policy to create a tax deferred cash value. If the insured dies and the policy has a cash value, the cash value is often paid out tax free in addition to the policy face amount.
Insurance industry studies have shown that the probability of filing a death benefit claim under a term insurance policy is unlikely. One study placed the percentage as low as 1% of policies paying a benefit. The low payout likelihood allows term insurance to be relatively inexpensive. The low payout percentage is a combination of there being a low likelihood (in the aggregate) of a random, healthy person dying within a short period of time. Because of the low likelihood of an insurer having to pay a death benefit, term insurance may offer more coverage per premium dollar-by a factor of up 10.