Life insurance sales grew 10% in the first quarter from a year earlier, according to the latest figures from Limra, the life insurance trade group in Windsor, Conn.

Limra only tallies dollar amounts for annual sales, so no direct quarter-to-quarter performance comparison is available. However, Karen Terry, the manager for product research at Limra, noted that "2009 was a terrible year, the worst in decades," for life insurance sales. "While the first quarter is encouraging, we're not yet at the level we were in 2008. It will take several years to recover to that point."

Universal life insurance enjoyed the largest growth spurt, 17% in the first quarter. Almost 65% of the 72 companies in the survey that sell universal life contributed to that growth.

Universal life policies without guaranteed death benefits grew by 30%, and the costlier coverage with death benefit guarantees, rose 10%. Guarantees prevent policyholders from accidentally underfunding their death benefits in these flexible-premium products.

Whole-life insurance, the only life product to grow in 2009, recorded a 15% jump in the first quarter from a year earlier. Variable universal life was also up, posting a 10% hike from the 2009 period.

Term life was the only product for which sales fell compared to the year earlier, down 4%. Buyers are returning to traditional products in the permanent marketplace, Terry said.

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