Whether a mother works outside the home or dedicates her life as a homemaker, women are less likely than men to have life insurance, and if they die, their families could be thrown into financial chaos.
"Underinsuring the female, whether she is a working or stay-at-home mom, makes no more sense than underinsuring the male. There are just too many uninsured couples putting their families at risk," said Beth Wood, assistant vice president of business and women's markets at Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Co.
But many families, especially in today's economy, don't think they can afford even the basics.
"When I was married, we never had life insurance," said Ruby Campbell, a Nampa, Idaho, mother of a 15- and 12-year-old. "When you marry young, you feel like you don't need it. We thought, 'That's for old people, when you're getting ready to die.'
"We thought about it a few times, making a will and all that. But when you're young and have kids, everything else takes precedence -- you need diapers, you need milk," Campbell said. "My husband didn't think there was a need for it. He thought you pay way too much for insurance and you never use it. He thought it was a waste."
But after getting divorced eight years ago, Campbell started thinking about the future of her family.
"You start thinking, 'If something happens to me, what's going to happen to my kids?' " she said. "When you're a single mom, you don't have anybody. What if something happened?"
And even if the father is supporting the entire family, it might not be enough if something catastrophic were to happen to the mother.
"If a woman dies or becomes disabled and cannot work or take care of the family, her husband may have to cut back his hours to stay at home or hire someone to care for the children, and that makes financial matters worse," Wood said.
Almost two-thirds of families depend on two incomes to make ends meet, according to the latest figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Women who do not work outside the home also bring extraordinary value to the family, Wood said. According to the May 2009 Mom Salary survey from Salary.com, a stay-at-home mom brings $122,732 in services to the family each year -- from cooking and cleaning to shopping, shuttling children around and a range of other domestic duties.
"If something were to happen to a stay-at-home mom you would still have to replace her contribution to the household," Wood said. "She may not work outside the home, but she works inside the home, and the cost to pay someone to do what she does is huge."
It can be difficult for families to discuss the sensitive issue of life insurance, and many women are uninsured or underinsured because families don't want to talk about what will happen and how the family will pay its bills if the mother dies.
"People may make the same decision their parents made -- they believe the man is the breadwinner, and that is the only income you protect. That is a very risky practice."
Although most people recognize the importance of life insurance in financially protecting their families, many need significant help in determining the type and amount of coverage appropriate at different life stages, according to the National Association of Insurance Commissioners.
Insurance rates are frequently based on the age and health of the insured, so Wood recommends getting started as soon as possible.
"Pensions are starting to go away; we don't know what the future of Social Security is. There isn't anyone else out there who will take care of us," Wood said. "So we need to take care of ourselves. The cost of waiting is going to kill you."