Estate planning refers to the process of deciding how an individual's assets will be managed, preserved, and distributed after death. It involves creating a plan to transfer wealth and property to heirs and beneficiaries. Life insurance is commonly used as part of an estate plan.
Life insurance is a contract between an insurance policy holder and an insurer that provides for a payment, known as a death benefit, to designated beneficiaries upon the insured's death. This benefit can be used to replace income, pay estate taxes and settlement costs, equalize assets among heirs, make charitable donations, and for other purposes.
Including life insurance in estate planning allows individuals to provide for their loved ones' financial needs after they pass away. The death benefit can be an important source of funds for heirs during a difficult transition period. Life insurance also allows policyholders to maximize their legacy and control how their assets are distributed.
## Why Life Insurance is Used in Estates Planning
Life insurance serves an important purpose in estates planning by providing liquidity to pay any debts owed by the deceased and taxes that are due on the estate. Without adequate life insurance, estates may lack the cash needed to cover these financial obligations.
When a person dies, their estate has to go through probate. Any debts they owe such as mortgages, credit cards, personal loans, or medical bills will typically need to be paid off first. Life insurance provides cash that can quickly be accessed to settle these debts so they don't become a burden on heirs.
Estates also often owe taxes that have to be paid. This includes income taxes on any money earned in the year of death as well as estate taxes if the estate is valued over a certain threshold. Estate taxes alone can claim up to 40% of the value of an estate. Life insurance helps provide the liquid assets required to pay the estate taxes in a timely manner.
Having to sell off assets or tap into investments to pay debts and taxes can significantly reduce the value of the estate passed onto heirs. Life insurance avoids the need to liquidate assets for these purposes so that more of the estate is preserved. The tax-free death benefit from a life insurance policy ensures there will be sufficient cash on hand to cover debts and taxes while allowing other assets to transfer to beneficiaries intact.
## Tax Benefits of Using Life Insurance
One of the main reasons life insurance is commonly used in estate planning is the income tax benefits it provides. When structured properly, the death benefit payout from a life insurance policy is free from federal income taxes. This allows the beneficiaries to receive the full sum free of taxes.
Life insurance death benefits are income tax-free because life insurance enjoys special tax advantages under the Internal Revenue Code. The death benefit is not considered taxable income to the beneficiary. This differs from other assets that pass to heirs, like stocks, bonds, and real estate, which do not receive the same income tax exemption.
The income tax-free nature of life insurance makes it an attractive estate planning tool. Heirs can receive a substantial tax-free inheritance that can be put to use immediately without owing taxes on it. This allows them to invest the funds right away or use it to pay expenses without tax implications.
Compared to leaving other assets, the income tax exemption on life insurance allows heirs to maximize their inheritance. If the money was subject to income taxes, it would eat into the amount the beneficiaries receive. But with a life insurance death benefit, they get the full tax-free amount.
## Types of Life Insurance Policies Used
Life insurance policies that are commonly used in estate planning include:
### Whole Life Insurance
Whole life insurance provides lifetime coverage as long as premiums are paid. It has a cash value component that grows over time that can be borrowed against. Whole life insurance helps pay estate taxes when someone passes away so heirs don't have to liquidate assets to cover taxes. It provides a guaranteed death benefit the beneficiaries will receive.
### Universal Life Insurance
Universal life insurance provides lifetime coverage with flexible premium payments and a cash value component. The death benefit and cash value grow at a set interest rate. Premium payments can be adjusted up or down over time. Universal life insurance is useful for estate planning because cash accumulations grow tax-deferred.
### Term Life Insurance
Term life insurance provides a death benefit if the insured passes away during a defined period of time, such as 10 or 20 years. It only covers a specific term and does not build cash value. Term life insurance can cover estate taxes due upon death. It is often the most cost efficient way to provide funds to beneficiaries tax-free after someone passes away.
## How Much Life Insurance is Needed
Life insurance can serve several purposes in an estate plan, so determining the right amount to purchase depends on the goals and needs of the individual or family. Some key factors to consider when deciding how much life insurance is needed in an estate plan include:
- **Paying debts and final expenses** - Life insurance payouts are often used to pay off any debts the deceased had, including mortgages, loans, medical bills, and credit cards. The payout can also cover funeral and burial costs. Recommendations for coverage for final expenses range from $10,000 to $15,000.
- **Paying estate taxes** - For high net worth individuals, life insurance can provide liquidity to pay estate taxes so heirs are not forced to sell assets to cover taxes. The amount needed depends on the value of the estate and the estate tax rate. Projecting potential estate taxes and structuring coverage to pay the liability is a common strategy.
- **Funding trusts** - Life insurance can fund trusts created in an estate plan, such as an irrevocable life insurance trust (ILIT), to provide for heirs in a tax-efficient manner. The amount of coverage depends on the amount intended to fund the trust. This could be hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars.
Determining life insurance needs requires working with an experienced estate planning attorney and financial advisor to project liabilities and obligations, and structure the right amount and type of policy. Ongoing reviews are also key as needs evolve over time. The goal is to purchase adequate coverage to accomplish the estate planning objectives without overinsuring.
## Naming Beneficiaries
One of the most important aspects of using life insurance in an estate plan is properly naming your policy's beneficiaries. This ensures the death benefit is distributed as intended upon your passing. There are a few key beneficiaries to consider:
Married couples often name each other as the primary beneficiary on their life insurance policies. This provides the surviving spouse with funds that can be used to cover expenses, pay off debts, and maintain their standard of living. It's generally advised that upon the death of one spouse, the surviving spouse be named the primary beneficiary on any remaining life insurance policies.
Parents with minor children may name their children as beneficiaries on a life insurance policy. This ensures the kids will have financial resources available for their care and education if the parents die prematurely. You can name individual children as beneficiaries or create a trust for the children and name the trust as beneficiary. The benefit of naming a trust is that you can provide instructions on how the funds should be used for the children's benefit over time.
Naming a trust as your life insurance beneficiary provides you with the greatest control over how the death benefit is used. The trustee will distribute the funds according to your instructions laid out in the trust documents. This is useful for estate planning goals like providing for grandchildren, charities, or specific final expenses. The trust only receives control of the funds after your death. You can change the trust terms and beneficiary designation on the policy at any time.
Properly naming beneficiaries on your life insurance policies ensures your loved ones and estate planning wishes are provided for when you pass away. It's important to periodically review your beneficiaries as your circumstances and goals change over time.
## Special Uses of Life Insurance
Life insurance policies can be used for some unique purposes beyond just providing for your beneficiaries after death. Two of the most common special uses of life insurance in estate planning are funding buy-sell agreements and making charitable gifts.
#### Funding Buy-Sell Agreements
Buy-sell agreements are often used by business partners to ensure the business continues if one partner dies. The surviving partners buy out the deceased partner's share.
Without a buy-sell agreement, the deceased partner's heirs could end up as co-owners of the business, which may not be desirable. Or the business may need to liquidate to pay out the deceased's estate.
Life insurance provides an effective way to fund buy-sell agreements. The business partners take out policies on each other's lives. When a partner passes away, the payout goes to the surviving partners to buy the deceased's share.
This ensures a smooth transition, provides cash to buy the share, and gives the deceased partner's heirs the payout they deserve. Life insurance makes buy-sell agreements work.
#### Charitable Gifts
Some estates include bequests to charities. Life insurance can be used to fund these gifts in a tax-efficient way.
For example, an estate may designate $500,000 to a charity. Rather than leaving assets or cash, the estate could take out a $500,000 policy with the charity as beneficiary.
Upon death, the charity receives the payout tax-free. This prevents the need to liquidate other assets to fulfill the charitable gift. The estate preserves more of its assets for heirs.
Life insurance can be an excellent vehicle for making substantial charitable donations from an estate.
## Alternatives to Life Insurance
While life insurance offers unique benefits for estate planning, there are other options to consider as well. Here are some of the main alternatives to using life insurance:
### Savings and Investments
Building up savings and investments can help provide funds to heirs without needing life insurance. This may involve maxing out retirement accounts like 401(k)s and IRAs, as well as taxable investment accounts. The key is to start early and contribute regularly to give savings as much time as possible to accumulate.
Investments like stocks, bonds, mutual funds, and real estate can potentially grow significantly over decades of compounding returns. This allows you to build up a sizable estate to pass on. The downsides are that investment returns are not guaranteed, and poor returns can reduce the legacy you're able to leave behind. There's also no special tax treatment.
### Liquidating Assets
Selling assets prior to death is another way to build up an inheritance. This can include property like real estate, art, jewelry, collectibles, or other valuables. These types of assets may rise in value over time and can be sold when you want to access their value. The proceeds can then be gifted to heirs or used to purchase life insurance.
The risk is that the timing of a sale is unpredictable - you don't know when you will die so can't time it perfectly. There are also costs involved with selling property and assets that would reduce the net value transferred. And if values decline, your estate will be worth less. But liquidating appreciating assets can be a viable alternative or supplement to life insurance.
## Key Factors to Consider
When determining if life insurance should be part of an estate plan, there are several key factors to take into account:
The insured's current health and family medical history are important considerations. If someone is currently suffering from a serious illness, or has a family history of conditions like heart disease or cancer, it will likely impact their eligibility for coverage and the cost of premiums. Those in good health will have more insurance options available at lower rates.
Younger individuals can generally obtain life insurance at much lower premiums than those who are older. Term life insurance pricing is also based heavily on age brackets. The older the applicant, the higher the premiums will be. Getting life insurance at a younger age locks in lower pricing.
### Policy Costs
The type of policy, amount of coverage, and length of the term all impact premium costs. Permanent policies tend to cost more than term policies for the same coverage amount. Premiums also increase as the insured ages. Comparing multiple quotes is important to find the most cost-effective policy.
### Income Needs
Consider factors like the surviving spouse's earning ability, whether young children will need support, ongoing household expenses, existing debts, and future goals like college savings. These income needs help determine the right amount of life insurance to adequately protect loved ones financially.
Life insurance can play an integral role in estates planning by providing funds to cover estate taxes and expenses after someone passes away. As discussed throughout this article, some of the key ways life insurance is utilized in estates planning include:
- Paying estate taxes - Life insurance death benefits can provide liquid funds to pay estate taxes so heirs are not forced to sell assets just to cover taxes. This helps preserve the estate.
- Equalizing inheritances - Life insurance allows you to provide additional assets to certain heirs to even out inheritances if desired. For example, life insurance proceeds can go to a child who is not involved in a family business so their inheritance is more equitable.
- Funding business buyouts - Life insurance can fund buy-sell agreements and ensure a business continues seamlessly if an owner dies. The proceeds provide capital to purchase the deceased's ownership share.
- Replacing lost income - Life insurance provides ongoing income for dependents to replace the deceased's earnings if they were a breadwinner. This income safety net helps loved ones maintain their standard of living.
- Avoiding forced asset sales - Life insurance proceeds prevent heirs from having to hastily sell assets just to raise funds to pay estate expenses. It prevents "fire sales" and allows more prudent decisions.
- Leaving charitable gifts - Some life insurance policies and ownership structures allow you to name a charity as a beneficiary, which can make for a larger charitable gift than you may otherwise be able to give.
Carefully incorporating life insurance into your estates plan where appropriate can provide important benefits and ensure your assets are preserved and distributed according to your wishes. Talk to your financial advisor about whether life insurance should be part of your estates planning.