While most people may look at life insurance proceeds simply as a way to pay off debt or to replace the insured’s income, there are tax-related benefits that can make life insurance policies a viable planning tool in other areas of your finances.
Certainly, one of the primary advantages of life insurance is that death benefit proceeds go to the beneficiary income tax-free. This means the recipient of the funds can make full use of the money for paying off debt, replacing lost income or meeting other important needs during a difficult time.
Although term life insurance provides only pure death benefit protection, permanent life insurance is a different story. Permanent life insurance policies provide death benefit coverage plus a cash-value component that can allow the policyholder to build up a substantial amount of tax-deferred savings over time. As an independent life insurance agent, I have worked with clients who incorporated some of these tax-advantaged features into their planning in a variety of ways.
There are several types of permanent life insurance policies available in the market today. These include whole life, universal life, variable life, variable universal life and indexed universal life insurance.
The tax-related advantages available to the permanent life policyholder during life include:
With permanent life insurance policies, the gain in the cash value is not taxed until it is withdrawn. This means that the funds are essentially able to obtain gains on top of gains, year after year, allowing the money to grow substantially over time. When the policyholder does make a withdrawal, the gains are taxed as ordinary income.
If you don’t harvest the cash value before death, however, you risk the chance that the cash value — including the policy’s dividends — will be absorbed by the insurance company and only the death benefit will be paid out to the beneficiary.
In many cases, the dividends received on eligible life insurance policies are also tax-free and do not have to be reported on the policyholder’s tax return. This is because dividends are considered a return of policy premiums. It is important to note, though, that dividends could become taxable if they start to exceed the net amount of premium that has been paid into the policy. Often policy dividends can be used for paying the policy’s premiums and/or for purchasing additional amounts of insurance.
Upon the death of the insured, the cash value, including the policy’s dividends, is absorbed by the insurance company, and the policy’s death benefit is paid out free of income tax to the beneficiary. (It is important to note that the death benefit amount may still be included in the insured’s overall estate value and therefore included in his or her estate tax calculation.)
You can take cash back out of the policy if it has sufficient cash value. A withdrawal will generally be tax-free, up to the amount of the policyholder’s “basis” in the plan; the basis is the amount of money that has been deposited into the policy via the premium payments. Any amount above that basis is considered to be gain — and gain is subject to ordinary income tax upon withdrawal.
Withdrawals are typically treated as coming out of the policy’s basis first, and then the gain. As an example, if the cash value totals $15,000, and $10,000 of that is basis, then the first $10,000 withdrawn would be tax-free. Any amount withdrawn above that would be considered gain and therefore taxable income.
In order to access a cash withdrawal, it is typically necessary to contact the insurance company directly.
In a cash surrender you simultaneously take out the cash value and cancel your policy, but there may be what’s called a surrender fee involved, even if only basis is being taken out. The amount of the surrender charge will often depend on how long the policyholder has owned the policy. One way to avoid a surrender charge is to borrow the money using a policy loan (described below) or by withdrawal rather than surrendering the policy.