Much like a Swiss Army knife, life insurance is a versatile and powerful tool that can be used in a variety of ways to provide for the future financial needs of loved ones. And, with advance planning, policyholders can take advantage of many benefits while also maximizing life insurance tax strategies.
However, life insurance is also complex, and taking incorrect steps can hinder maximizing its value and potentially restrict some of its versatility. For example, life insurance proceeds are typically not subject to income tax; however, if the recently deceased’s estate is named the beneficiary of that insurance policy, then those same proceeds may trigger the estate tax (depending on the amount). The beneficiaries of that estate would only get the net cash from the insurance – the original proceeds reduced by that estate tax. Therefore, it is imperative that those who invest in life insurance as an estate planning strategy take the time to read this tool’s instruction manual in order to navigate these details.
Filing Down the Details of the Trust Technique
One relatively straightforward strategy for avoiding the threat of insurance benefits triggering estate taxes is the use of an irrevocable life insurance trust (ILIT). Putting the policy into a trust removes it—and its benefits—from the estate. This step ensures that the financial payout will not be subject to estate taxes. However, it also limits the future options for the policy owner since an ILIT entails more stringent rules than flexible revocable trusts. Specifically, policy owners must give up certain elements of control when the policy enters the trust. For example, policy owners do not have the right to borrow against any cash value in the policy or change beneficiaries.
There is also an IRS rule that states that the policy’s proceeds will be counted under the estate unless the insured survives for at least three years following the transfer into the trust. However, this rule does not apply if the trust itself (once created and gifted with an amount sufficient to cover the desired insurance coverage) purchases the policy. If the ILIT buys the policy directly, rather than transferring an existing policy into the trust, then the proceeds won’t be included in the insured’s estate — regardless of how long the trust has been funded.
Throwing In the Transfer-for-Value Wrench
The transfer-for-value rule poses another threat to the tax-free status for life insurance proceeds. This regulation was created by Congress specifically to discourage attempts to evade taxes through repeated ownership transfers of insurance policies. Under this rule, life insurance benefits lose their tax-exempt status when the ownership of the policy is transferred in exchange for monetary or other consideration. The amount of the consideration exchanged for the policy—plus any future premiums paid by the new owner—will remain untaxable, but the rest of the proceeds are taxed as ordinary income.
There are five exceptions written into the transfer-for-value rule, allowing tax-free death benefits in certain cases—even for policies that have been transferred to another party. Briefly, these exceptions allow untaxed benefits where ownership has been transferred to:
- The insured party.
- A partner of the insured party.
- A partnership that includes the insured party.
- A corporation in which the insured party is a shareholder or officer.
- A party whose cost basis in the policy is determined based on the original owner’s cost basis.
The transfer-for-value rule gets quite complex in practice, so it is important to seek professional advice when considering such a transfer. For example, the rule can be triggered inadvertently when policies are incorrectly transferred.
Call CRI to Learn More about Life Insurance Tax Strategies and Versatility
Life insurance offers a variety of opportunities and benefits as a financial planning tool when used knowledgeably. Like other sophisticated financial instruments, it should be treated cautiously to reap the maximum value while avoiding potential pitfalls. To learn more about life insurance and how you can best use it to reach your financial goals, contact CRI.
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