Life Insurance Fundamentals

A life insurance policy is a valued insurance policy that pays a specified amount to the beneficiary, when the insured dies. A beneficiary can be a person, business, trust, or estate. The owner of the policy is the person or organization who pays the premiums and has ownership rights:

For life insurance companies to profit, they must engage in both medical and financial underwriting. Medical underwriting requires assessing the current health status of the applicant as well as future indicators of health risks, such as whether the applicant smokes or works in a hazardous occupation. The applicant must supply extensive medical information in the application and undergo a physical exam. An applicant in poor health will pay higher premiums or the company may refuse to insure the individual at all. To determine premiums, life insurance companies classify insurance applicants into separate underwriting classes based on the risk of early death: preferred, standard, substandard, and uninsurable. Insurance applicants adjudged a standard risk are charged the standard premium, without a surcharge or a policy restriction. Preferred risks, who are considered healthier than average and who have lower risk occupations, are charged a lower premium than the standard rate. Substandard risks are those whose health, occupation, personal habits, such as smoking, or other variables predict a shorter lifespan, so they are charged higher rates. Uninsurable risks include people in poor health, with unhealthy habits, or who work in hazardous occupations. It may also include people with characteristics for which the insurer has insufficient information to set an accurate premium, such as those with rare diseases.

Financial underwriting requires that the company determine that the beneficiary would suffer a loss if the insured died, if the beneficiary is also the owner of the policy. Otherwise, the beneficiary would not have insurable interest, since state law does not permit anyone to take out life insurance policies on other people unless they would suffer a financial loss if the insured died. So, for instance, spouses would have insurable interest to insure each other, a partnership would have an insurable interest in insuring its partners, and a company could purchase life insurance on its key employees.

Death is certain, but when it occurs is not. Life expectancy is the average number of years that a person can expect to live. For people with a given life expectancy, half will die before then and half will die afterward. If someone dies early, then they may leave behind a family or other financial dependents depend on the decedent's income.

Graph of life expectancies from birth and from age 65 from 1900 to 2003.

Although these statistics are a few years old, the trend is expected to continue for the foreseeable future, as medicine continues to advance.

Premature death is, for insurance purposes, the unexpected death of someone who provides financial support to others, and life insurance helps to continue that support.

There are pecuniary costs of premature death:

Since life insurance mostly provides financial support for the financial dependents of the decedent, life insurance is purchased only for the breadwinners of a family. If a family member provides no support, or if it is a single individual living alone, then there is generally no need for life insurance, except, maybe, to cover funeral costs.

Life insurance is a valued policy, not a contract of indemnification. Death is certain, only the time of its arrival is uncertain. After the death of the insured, the face amount of the policy is paid to the named beneficiary.

The Distribution of Life Insurance

The distribution of life insurance is classified as group, industrial, and individual life insurance. Group life insurance is provided to specific groups, such as employees at a firm, or members of an organization. Often, the employer pays for it. If the insured pays for it, it is usually at a reduced cost. However, group life insurance has no savings value, and its face value is usually low — inadequate for most families. Credit life insurance is a specific type of group insurance that is sold by creditors to their customers that pays off their debt to the creditor if they should die. These policies are expensive compared to the benefits and are a poor value.

Individual life insurance is insurance for individuals, paid by the individuals, usually having a greater face value than group life policies, and the individual can choose policies with a savings or income value, and other preferred items.

Industrial life insurance (aka debit life insurance, burial insurance) was sold by insurance agents, sometimes called debit agents, to low-income workers. The debit agent would visit the workers weekly, usually on their payday to collect the premiums. Industrial life insurance is rarely sold today. These policies were very expensive because the life expectancy of low-income workers was less than the general population, but most of the expense was incurred to pay for the debit agents to visit the individual homes to collect the premiums.

How Much Life Insurance?

The amount of life insurance needed depends on the family and their situation. There are various methods at estimating the amount of life insurance to purchase. The human life value method simply calculates the present value of all earnings of the breadwinner that would have gone to the dependents. The amount of these earnings would be the estimated amount earned from work or other sources, minus the amount that would be paid in taxes, and minus the amount that the breadwinner would keep for himself.

While the human life value method is one way to calculate the amount of life insurance needed, it is not very valuable. It makes more sense to calculate the amount that the financial dependents will need rather than what they would have gotten if the breadwinner had lived. The needs calculation would involve estimating and providing a fund for all known expenses, and paying off all debt; then determine the amount of financial need after all debts have been paid off. It can be paid as a lump sum or as income using a capital retention approach.

Some needs are temporary; others are permanent. As temporary needs are eliminated, the total amount of life insurance can be reduced. Most people have the following needs:

Once the needs have been determined, then other sources of income should be considered that would reduce the amount of life insurance needed. These would include social security benefits; benefits from other insurance policies, such as from work; investment income; and other possible sources of income, such as from a business that the deceased had an ownership interest.

The capital retention approach (aka capital needs analysis) is much like the needs approach, but provides the surviving family with capital that earns income over time. This generally requires much more life insurance. If the policy owner cannot afford the capital retention approach, then it makes more sense to pay off debt, since debt incurs greater interest than can be safely earned from investments. In fact, paying off debt is like earning the interest that would otherwise be paid tax-free.

Estate Planning with Life Insurance

Life insurance is frequently used to provide cash for an estate. Many large estates have most of their worth as land, buildings, art, collectibles, and other items not easily converted into cash. However, federal estate taxes must be paid within 9 months of someone's death, and the decedent may have wished to make cash bequests and to cover the expenses associated with the estate without liquidating assets.

Frequently, life insurance proceeds are paid into a trust. This life insurance trust then purchases the assets in the estate, providing the estate with cash to pay expenses and provide for heirs, while maintaining the assets within the trust, to continue earning income.

Another form of life insurance used in estate planning is the survivor life insurance policy (aka joint-and-survivor or second-to-die life insurance) which insures both spouses, but pays the estate of the last spouse to die, since no estate tax is due when an estate transfers from the decedent to the surviving spouse, because of the unlimited marital deduction. Survivorship life insurance can be term, whole life, universal, or variable insurance policies. Some variations of this type of policy include an increased cash value upon the occurrence of the 1st death or increased dividends. Another option is that the policy can be paid up after the 1st death, so no more premiums need to be paid. Survivorship policies are usually restricted to husband and wife, parent or child, or related business partners, owners or key employees.

Another type of policy is the first-to-die life insurance policy, which ensures 2 or more people and can be any type of life insurance policy. Usually the policy pays after the 1st death, but a rider is available that will allow the survivor to continue coverage. First-to-die life insurance policies have lower premiums than insuring each individual with a separate policy.

Life insurance proceeds are includable in the estate of the decedent if the decedent had an incident of ownership in the policy either at the time of death or within 3 years of death, or the proceeds were payable to the decedent's estate. An incident of ownership is one where the insured retained some control over the policy, including outright ownership, the power to surrender, cancel or assign the policy, the legal right to receive dividends or to borrow against the cash value of the policy, or to pledge the policy to secure a loan, or to change the beneficiary. For this reason, many wealthy people use an irrevocable trust or a business entity to own the policy. If the insured is the grantor of the trust, then the trust must be irrevocable; otherwise, the grantor would have control over the trust and, therefore, control over the life insurance policy, making it includable in his estate.

Taxation of Life Insurance

The payment of a life insurance policy to a beneficiary is not taxable. However, it may be subject to the alternative minimum tax if it is received by a C corporation. If the beneficiary takes the proceeds as an annuity, and the money not paid continues to earn interest, then the interest is taxable. If a life insurance policy is sold by the owner for immediate cash — transferred for value — to an exempt transferee, then the life insurance proceeds remains tax-free. Exempt transferees include:

If the transferee was non-exempt, then, for the buyer, only the amount paid for the policy + any additional premiums will be tax-free; the rest will be subject to ordinary income taxes. Any interest incurred on any debt to acquire the contract that is not deductible under IRC §264 can be deducted from the insurance proceeds. So, for instance, if you bought a $100,000 policy from the original owner for $50,000, and paid an additional $10,000 of premiums until the insured finally died, then you would receive $60,000 of the proceeds tax-free; the remaining $40,000 would be subject to ordinary income tax.

Transferring an insurance policy has several safe harbor rules from the transferred-for-value rule, including:

The proceeds of viatical settlements are also income tax-free, where the life insurance policy has been sold by the insured to pay for expensive medical care because of a terminal or a chronic illness. However, chronically ill patients have per day limits under IRC §7702(d)(2), an amount adjusted for inflation, which, in 2018, was $370.

Life insurance proceeds are subject to federal estate tax and will be included in the gross estate if the proceeds are payable to or for the benefit of the estate; if the insured possessed any incidents of ownership in the policy at the time of death; or the policy was transferred as a gift within 3 years of death. Additionally, the fair market value of the policy, including the cash value + unearned premiums, on another person's life is includable in the owner's gross estate.

Gifts of life insurance policies or premium payments may also be subject to the federal gift tax, based on the fair market value of the policy at the time of the gift or on the total value of premiums paid. The gift tax value depends on the type of insurance and can usually be obtained from the insurance company.

Dividends, Savings, and Accelerated Death Benefits

Participating life insurance policies pay dividends, which is not taxed, because the IRS treats the dividends as a return of premium rather than earned income.

Many life insurance policies have a savings value that the owner of the policy can withdraw. These policies have an adjusted cost basis, equal to the sum of all premiums paid minus the sum of all dividends received. Income received by the owner exceeding the adjusted cost basis is taxed as ordinary income.

Many policies also have an accelerated death benefit, allowing the insured to withdraw some of the death benefits when the insured is terminally ill. Accelerated death benefits are fully excludable from income if the insured is a terminally ill individual, a person who has been certified by a physician as having an illness or physical condition that can reasonably be expected to result in death within 24 months from the date of the certification. Accelerated death benefits may also be tax-free for chronic illness. Chronic illness, or some similar level of disability, must be certified by a physician that the person is unable to perform at least 2 activities of daily living for a minimum of 90 days without significant assistance. A person may also be considered chronically ill if constant supervision is required to protect herself from threats to her own safety or to those of others, because of severe cognitive impairment, a condition that must be certified by a doctor within the previous 12 months.