Does Spider-Man need life insurance? What about Batman?

Think I'm being silly?

Perhaps, but clearly lots of folks aren't so clear about who needs life insurance. When asked to assess the life insurance needs of five fictional characters, almost half of the people surveyed thought superheroes Batman and Spider-Man had a much greater need for coverage than cartoon parents Fred Flintstone and Marge Simpson.

"Though fictional, the life situations of these characters illustrate just how different real people's individual life insurance needs can be," said David F. Woods, president of the Life and Health Insurance Foundation for Education (LIFE), which sponsored the survey.

Lately, I've been compelled to rethink a lot of things because of the calamitous hurricanes that hit the Gulf Coast region in recent weeks. The loss of life has been tremendous. I wonder how many of those killed had life insurance. Of those who did, how many had enough to take care of dependents spared by the storms?

The survey by LIFE may seem ridiculous, but I found it interesting. The pollsters asked 1,014 adults to consider five fictional characters and select the one they thought had the greatest need for life insurance. Here's who people believed needed life insurance more:

* Twenty-eight percent chose Spider-Man, an unmarried freelance photographer with an elderly aunt. Here's what I think: Peter Parker would need life insurance only if his aunt relied on him to supplement her income.

* Eighteen percent chose Batman, a wealthy bachelor. Okay, so the man has a dangerous job, but he's rich with no dependents.

* Only 16 percent said Fred Flintstone, a married father with a young child, needed life insurance. "Fred, the primary breadwinner of the Flintstone family, has a pressing need for life insurance to ensure that Wilma and Pebbles could maintain their standard of living if he were no longer able to provide for them," Woods said.

* Fifteen percent thought Harry Potter, a teenager and student, should be insured. He shouldn't.

* Only 11 percent said Marge Simpson, a stay-at-home mom, should get life insurance. I understand that those polled might think it makes sense to insure only the person bringing home the money, but not all family contributions are monetary. As Woods points out: "Stay-at-home parents like Marge perform many household services that would be expensive to replace, and consequently have a significant need for life insurance."

Here are some real-life examples of people who do and don't need life insurance:

* A minor child: Life insurance is intended to care for dependents. Unless you are dependent on your offspring for income, you don't need life insurance on a minor child (that includes a teenager or college student).

* Single adult, no children or other dependents: If the only person depending on your income is you, you don't need life insurance.

* Single adult with dependent child: Unless your former spouse or baby's daddy (or mommy) is capable of carrying all the costs of raising your child, you need life insurance. Nearly four in 10 single parents have no life insurance coverage of any kind. Of those who have coverage, nearly two in three consider their coverage inadequate, according to LIFE. The typical single parent has only $60,000 in life insurance coverage.

* Married, no children: If you have a mortgage and other expenses that your spouse can't handle alone, get life insurance.

* Married with children: You're in the same position as a single parent with a dependent child.

* Stay at-home parent: Remember what Woods said -- consider life insurance if the surviving spouse will have to pay for child care or other services formerly provided by the stay-at-home parent.

* Married, nearing retirement, child is grown: Once your child is out of college or living on his or her own, you should reevaluate your insurance needs. If you've been saving and you have adequate retirement savings and investments, you don't need life insurance anymore.

"The general rule is, if someone stands to suffer financially at your death, then you probably need life insurance and should consider it," Woods said.

There are two questions to ask when determining your insurance needs, according to Woods:

* How much money will your dependents need to cover immediate costs, such as your funeral arrangements and current living expenses?

* How much money will they need for the long term, such as college expenses?

Once you decide you need life insurance, the next step is to figure out how much. Try the life insurance calculator created by LIFE at www.life-line.org. On the Web site, look for the life insurance section and then click on the link for "How Much Do I Need?" Ideally, you want enough coverage so your beneficiaries could invest the death benefit and live off any interest earned.

And don't assume you can't afford enough coverage. A 40-year-old male can purchase $500,000 of 20-year level premium term life insurance for $375 a year, or a little more than $1 a day, according to LIFE. A 40-year-old female can purchase $500,000 of 20-year level premium term life insurance for $320 a year.

Be a superhero to your dependents and take the time today to make sure they're protected before it's too late.

* On the air: Michelle Singletary discusses personal finance Tuesdays on NPR's "Day to Day" program and online at www.npr.org.

* By mail: Readers can write to her at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.

* By e-mail: singletarym@washpost.com.

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