You buy term life insurance to provide financial protection for a certain number of years, usually until you've paid off the mortgage and put the kids through college.

But what happens if you decide later you need permanent coverage for the rest of your life?

Fortunately, most term life policies marketed today include a conversion feature. This option lets you convert the term life policy to whole life or universal life without undergoing a medical exam or answering questions about your health. You get the same health rating you received when you applied for the term policy--a big plus in case you later get sick or develop a risky condition, such as high blood pressure.

The time to think about conversion is well before you need it. When shopping for term life policies, consider the following:

1. Look for quality, not just a low insurance rate.

The type of permanent policies available under a conversion feature depends on the company marketing the term life product. Look for a highly rated life insurance company that has a strong portfolio of products.

2. Know the deadline.

Don't assume the term life policy is convertible; not all of them are. Also, check the deadline for conversion, which may be several years into the policy, but before the term ends. You're out of luck if you miss the deadline. Once the term ends, you either have to buy another policy for coverage or pay exorbitant rates, which increase each year, to keep the term life policy in force.

3. Get advice on when and how much to convert.

You don't have to convert an entire term life policy all at once to permanent insurance. You can convert in phases or convert just a portion of the coverage to permanent insurance. This strategy lets you build an investment in permanent life insurance gradually as your income grows. Work with a trusted financial adviser to plan when and how much of a term life policy to convert.

Only a tiny portion of all term life policies are converted to whole life or universal life insurance, according to LIMRA, a global research and consulting firm that tracks the life insurance industry. Because the term life market is so competitive, many buyers today simply shop for cheap term insurance to replace the policies they let go.

But many insurance agents generally recommend having at least some permanent life insurance in place to handle estate taxes and final expenses.