Basic Estate Planning: Life Insurance

Fact Sheet 6
EP-6
Community Development
Date: 
07/06/2012
James C. Skeeles, Ph.D., Extension Educator Emeritus in Agriculture and Natural Resources and Community Development, skeeles.1@osu.edu
Russell N. Cunningham, Attorney and OSBA Certified Specialist in Estate Planning, Trusts, and Probate Law, Barrett, Easterday, Cunningham & Eselgroth, LLP, rcunningham@ohiocounsel.com

Life insurance is a contract, similar to property ownership with rights of survivorship. Upon the death of the insured, a beneficiary receives a cash payment. Life insurance can be very useful in estate settlement. Life insurance is a contract between as many as four entities:

  1. Life insurance company
  2. Policy owner
  3. Insured
  4. Beneficiary

The first entity, the company, accepts money from the second entity, the policy owner. The policy owner determines who is insured. The owner of the policy has the authority to cancel the policy, borrow against the policy, and determine and change the beneficiary. When the insured dies, a cash award is made to the beneficiary, the fourth entity.

The primary reason for a death benefit is to care for dependents who would have been cared for if the deceased were still alive. In general, however, most of us need life insurance when we are least able to afford it, when debt is high, when assets are low, and when our children are too young to care for themselves. This is when life insurance can create an estate in the event of the death of the breadwinner/caretaker. For most, life insurance is the only way to provide security for our loved ones in the event of our death.

Even if the deceased has no dependents, liquidity is needed upon one's death. Cash to pay settlement costs and/or debts can come from life insurance, liquid assets in the estate, or the liquidization of fixed assets. Life insurance should be considered for anyone who does not wish to sell his or her assets, or who does not want his or her heirs to have to borrow money due to insufficient liquid assets (savings accounts, CDs, etc.) to cover settlement costs.

Fixed assets often (house, farm, business, etc.) make up the majority of the estate, and parents often wish for only certain children to have them. At the same time, the parents often desire to give bequests of equitable value to all children. In addition, business associates might wish to buy out others when the need arises. When this is the case, there is seldom enough cash. Life insurance is one of several tools that can be used to assist with the dilemma.

There are several ways to use life insurance. First, heirs not receiving equitable fixed assets might be designated as life insurance beneficiaries. Or, all heirs can be given equitable shares of all assets, including the fixed assets. Then, one or more of the heirs can buy out the others' share with proceeds from a life insurance policy. Of course, a preceding buy-sell agreement should be in place.

Life insurance can also be used to avert estate settlement costs, even if liquidity is not needed. Except for federal estate tax, life insurance proceeds are not generally subject to estate settlement costs. As long as the insured is not the beneficiary or owner of the policy, the proceeds are not subject to federal estate tax.

Because of the above mentioned federal estate tax considerations, those with estates of $5 million for a single or $10 million or more for a couple ($1 million for a single or $2 million or more for a couple possibly in 2013) might wish to have someone other than the insured pay the premiums and own the life insurance policy. Trusts can also be owners and beneficiaries of life insurance policies; this averts settlement costs, including federal estate taxes, on the life insurance proceeds. CAUTION: Having spouses own life insurance policies on each other does not avert federal estate taxes, because the surviving spouse would then own the proceeds. The survivor would then need to spend, gift, or otherwise allocate the proceeds, else estate settlement costs would be assessed on those proceeds upon his or her death. The surviving spouse would also need to change the beneficiary of his or her own policy if the deceased spouse was the only named beneficiary.

Most dividends paid on money deposited in a life insurance policy are not charged income tax. This is the case because the dividends are considered a refund of the policy owner's overpayment. If the policy is held properly, the proceeds might also be estate tax-free as mentioned above. Money placed in a whole life insurance policy can have an investment component so that the policy has a cash value from which the owner can borrow. However, investment returns from life insurance might not be as high as from alternative investments, so the cost of the above tax protection might be high.

Life insurance cost varies by the company, the type of insurance, and the age, sex, and health of the insured. Term insurance is generally less expensive because it covers only a specified period of time, builds no cash value, the premium goes up over time, and many cannot be renewed beyond the insured's age of 65 or 70. When the specified term is up, the premium cost might be too high to renew. Still, the lower initial cost of term insurance might allow families to be insured adequately when they are young and need it the most.

Later in life, income might be higher so that the relatively higher cost of term insurance will not be problematic. Also, the size of the needed policy might decrease as children become less dependent and the wealth of the family grows. The size of policy is most easily reduced with term insurance. If you purchase term insurance, it is important that there is a clause to ensure renewal at the end of the term. Even if renewable, the premiums for the next term will likely be higher, as the insured's age will be higher.

Survivorship policies pay only when the last surviving spouse dies. Survivorship policies have lower rates, as the life expectancy for the last surviving spouse is longer than for either spouse. If the objective is to provide liquidity upon the death of the surviving spouse, a survivorship policy might be appropriate.

Whole life insurance premiums are constant throughout the insured's life because the money saved by the lower insurance costs early in the insured's life builds cash reserves that are used to pay the higher insurance costs later in life. Variable life insurance policies incorporate an investment factor into life insurance. As with stocks and bonds, the value of variable life insurance policies fluctuates with the market. However, these policies seldom perform as well as stocks and bonds.

The financial viability of the insurance company is also important, as the federal government does not guarantee insurance policies as they do with bank accounts. A.M. Best (A++), Standard and Poor's (AAA), Moody's Investors (Aaa), and Duff and Phelp (AAA) are some of the rating agencies that compare the financial health of insurance companies (best ratings are in parentheses). In general, companies to be considered should have at least an "A" rating or higher. Competitive rates can be obtained with the highest rated companies. Additional information and an excellent life insurance shopping guide can be obtained from The Ohio Department of Insurance at 1-800-686-1526.

Here is one last note on life insurance. A contingent owner and contingent beneficiary should be designated in the policy. If a contingent owner or beneficiary is designated and the owner or beneficiary dies before the insured, the person previously designated as the contingent then becomes the new owner or beneficiary. For estate tax and other settlement cost purposes, the contingent beneficiary needs to end up being different than the insured; otherwise, the proceeds will be included in the estate of the insured, and settlement costs will be assessed on the proceeds. This can be the case if spouses name each other as the beneficiary but don't change the beneficiary after the first spouse dies. When the second spouse dies, there is no beneficiary; therefore, the proceeds go into the estate. This can be averted by the use of a trust or by naming the children as contingent beneficiaries when both spouses are alive. If the policy is paid into a trust upon death, it will avoid Ohio estate tax at the death of both spouses; however, if the policy is paid to the surviving spouse, there will be Ohio estate tax on whatever portion of the proceeds remain at the second death.

It is wise to name not only a contingent beneficiary, but also a contingent owner other than the spouse. For those who are concerned about federal estate tax and who have estates of $5 million for a single or $10 million or more for a couple ($1 million for a single or $2 million or more for a couple possibly in 2013), it is important that the insured does not end up being the owner so that the proceeds are not included on the federal estate tax form. If spouses own each other's policies, unless a contingent owner is designated (other than the surviving spouse) upon the death of the first spouse, the surviving spouse might become the owner and insured of the remaining policy. The proceeds of this policy are then included in federal estate tax calculations in the estate of the second spouse to die. For these reasons, careful consideration needs to be given to contingent beneficiaries and owners of life insurance policies. Remember, the owner of the policy has the power to cash in the policy, change beneficiaries, and assign the policy to someone else.

This concludes the discussion of life insurance. The next fact sheet will discuss the use of trusts as an estate planning and managing tool.

These fact sheets should in no manner be considered as a replacement for consulting with estate planning professionals, nor should the general principles in these fact sheets be applied to specific situations without consulting with an attorney. 


Your Response

Fact Sheet 6

1. Which one of the following is the least appropriate use of life insurance?

a. To provide for dependents in the event of the premature death of a breadwinner or caregiver.

b. To provide liquidity needed upon the death of the insured.

c. As an investment vehicle.

2. Joe owned and paid the premiums for a life insurance policy on himself. When Joe died, the company paid Mary, his daughter. For which of the following calculations are the life insurance premiums included?

a. Probate court fee

b. Executor fee

c. Capital gain for income taxes

d. Ohio estate tax

e. Federal estate tax

3. Now assume that Joe did not own the policy, but Mary, his daughter, did own the policy and also paid the premiums. For Joe's estate, which, if any, of the following calculations are the life insurance premiums included?

a. Probate court fee

b. Executor fee

c. Capital gain for income taxes

d. Ohio estate tax

e. Federal estate tax

f. None of the above

4. The money you give to a life insurance company is insured by the government.

True      False

5. If you are shopping for life insurance, which of the following are important considerations?

a. Cost per $1,000 of coverage, now and in the future

b. Financial health of the company

c. Familiarity with and trustworthiness of the agent

d. Renewability of the policy, for term policies

e. All of the above

6. Which of the following are cash needs that can be supplied by life insurance?

a. Provide for dependents in case of premature death.

b. Provide liquidity for estate settlement costs.

c. If real estate or other nonliquid assets go to some heirs, life insurance proceeds can provide cash to other heirs to equalize inheritances.

d. If policy is a whole life policy with cash value, one can borrow against the cash value while living.

e. All of the above.


Answers

Fact Sheet 6

1. Which one of the following is the least appropriate use of life insurance?

a. To provide for dependents in the event of the premature death of a breadwinner or caregiver.

b. To provide liquidity needed upon the death of the insured.

c. As an investment vehicle.

Yields of life insurance are generally lower than those available outside the life insurance industry. Be leery of life insurance policies sold solely on the basis of their return on investment. 

2. Joe owned and paid the premiums for a life insurance policy on himself. When Joe died, the company paid Mary, his daughter. For which of the following calculations are the life insurance premiums included?

a. Probate court fee

b. Executor fee

c. Capital gain for income taxes

d. Ohio estate tax

e. Federal estate tax

The value of the life insurance policy is included in federal estate tax calculations. If Mary owned the policy on Joe and Mary paid the premiums, the value of the life insurance would not have been included even in federal estate tax calculations.

3. Now assume that Joe did not own the policy, but Mary, his daughter, did own the policy and also paid the premiums. For Joe's estate, which, if any, of the following calculations are the life insurance premiums included?

a. Probate court fee

b. Executor fee

c. Capital gain for income taxes

d. Ohio estate tax

e. Federal estate tax

f. None of the above

As indicated in the answer above, when a person other than the insured and deceased owns the policy and pays the premiums and a beneficiary is designated (so that the settlement does not go to the estate), life insurance proceeds are not subject to any estate settlement costs.

4. The money you give to a life insurance company is insured by the government.

True      False

Even though the government regulates and oversees life insurance companies, it does not insure them as it does with most savings accounts and certificates of deposits.

5. If you are shopping for life insurance, which of the following are important considerations?

a. Cost per $1,000 of coverage, now and in the future

b. Financial health of the company

c. Familiarity with and trustworthiness of the agent

d. Renewability of the policy, for term policies

e. All of the above

All of the above are important considerations. Considering item "a," term insurance has had the lowest cost, even over a lifetime, but the cost of term insurance will increase as one ages. Policies with a paid up provision or investment provision will have level or decreasing payments over one's lifetime.

6. Which of the following are cash needs that can be supplied by life insurance?

a. Provide for dependents in case of premature death.

b. Provide liquidity for estate settlement costs.

c. If real estate or other nonliquid assets go to some heirs, life insurance proceeds can provide cash to other heirs to equalize inheritances.

d. If policy is a whole life policy with cash value, one can borrow against the cash value while living.

e. All of the above.

All of the above are possible uses for life insurance. However, if term insurance is used, no equity is available unless one dies within the term for which the premium is paid.

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