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The cash value of an insurance contract, also called the cash surrender value or surrender value, is the cash amount offered to the policyowner by the issuing life carrier upon cancellation of the contract. This term is normally used with a life insurance contract.
To receive the cash value, the policyholder is normally obliged to surrender the policy received at outset of the contract to the issuing life insurance company as documentation of rights under the contract.
Cash values are usually agreed for the case of premature cancellations in those forms of insurance contracts, especially life insurance contracts, in which a portion of the premiums go toward a savings plan, like whole life insurance or endowment life insurance and other forms of permanent life insurance. Such amounts are often certain to be paid in case of survival only and will not be paid to beneficiaries as part of the death benefit. The contract determines for each possible cancellation date the related cash value. If the investment of premiums is contractually made in an individual account, the cash value is the value of the investments in that account at any particular time. Such cash value credited to an individual account during the tenure of the policy keeps growing with every payment of premium. It also increments due to interest credited.
The policyholder may also be able to use the cash value as collateral on a loan.
The cash value will often be similar or even equal to the reserve to be held by the insurance company for the net obligations from the contract. As such, the amount is usually invested and earns investment income for the insurance company which is to some extent forwarded to policyholders of participating contracts.
Since often initial premiums are not invested but covering initial costs associated with selling the contract (up front or front-end fee), the amount available may be significantly lower than the sum of premiums paid for some time, initially even zero. Later, interest credited might compensate that initial loss.
The value of the investment is often subject to a surrender charge in determining the cash value. A surrender charge offsets the costs associated with selling the contract and allows these contracts to be sold with little or no up front fees. Surrender charges are imposed when a contract is cancelled within a set time frame. Any cancellation after that time frame are not subject to a surrender charge. Typically surrender charges decrease on an annual schedule until they disappear altogether.
The determination of the cash value, both the base amount and the applicable surrender charge, in the contract can be explicit by determining the value for each surrender date (guaranteed cash values), by referring to the value of specific investments or subject to the discretion of the insurance company, which is often executed to bring cash values in line with values of the investments of the insurance company. Guaranteed cash values can result in significant risks for the insurance company, if the guarantee exceeds the economic value of policyholders' rights under the contract and the value of reserves hold.