Shopping for the right health insurance plan for your family is no easy task. You need to know all the ins and outs of the industry before you sign the dotted line.

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Going to the doctor when you're sick can be stressful. Having a health issue and not knowing what's wrong can raise a lot of scary questions. Is it treatable? Do I need surgery? But imagine going through the same process knowing you don't have insurance to cover the cost of your care. You'd probably also ask yourself how much every little procedure will cost, whether they're follow-up appointments, surgery or prescription medications that may be necessary.

And if you have a family, it's also common to worry about how you'd provide for them if you go into debt paying for your own health issue. After all, a minor surgery could completely wipe out your savings. Even a gap in coverage of just a day can be detrimental if you're involved in a car accident or slip and break a bone. Although the right family health insurance coverage can seem expensive, it is very important and will save you money in the long run.

There are a number of ways you can guarantee your entire family is covered by a health insurance plan. If you work for a company that provides a group plan, they will usually allow you to add your spouse and children under the age of 21, or 23 if they are a full-time student. (This age limit is changing thanks to health care reform. We'll talk about that more later.) If you are self-employed, you can sign up for a personal health plan that will get you the same coverage, but without the discounted group rate.

If you're in the process of transitioning from one plan to another, it's important to maintain coverage. COBRA might be a good option for your transition if you've recently left a job to be self-employed or to return to school. COBRA allows you to keep your employee plan for up to a year and a half. The only problem is your employer will no longer pay its share so COBRA coverage can be expensive.

However, maintaining coverage can prevent your new health insurer from siting pre-existing conditions they won't cover. Even if you got in an accident and sprained your ankle while not insured, a new insurance company could site the issue as a pre-existing condition and refuse to cover complications that could arise later. No matter what ailment you're being treated for while uninsured -- diabetes, migraines or even a broken bone -- a new insurer could exclude that treatment from coverage [source: Hawkins]. You would have to pay out of pocket for any appointments, medicines or surgeries related to that issue once you get new coverage. Imagine if your pre-existing condition was breast cancer. You would go into significant debt because you let your coverage lapse.

Due to the plethora of health conditions and needs, there is no cookie cutter solution for buying health insurance. You must assess your and your family's needs to find the right plan. On the next page, we'll discuss what you should look for in a family health insurance plan.