Universal Life Insurance

Permanent (cash value life) insurance with flexible premiums
Universal life is a form of permanent (cash value) insurance. Your cash value receives a guaranteed minimum interest rate plus an excess interest rate when the insurance company’s investments perform well, making the returns more competitive than with some other types of policies. (Guarantees are subject to the claims-paying ability of the insurer.) Universal life insurance also offers you flexibility through the ability to change your level of protection, premium amounts, and payment frequency. In this way, your policy can keep pace with changes in your life and your corresponding insurance needs.

Contains unbundled policy elements
Unlike many other types of cash value policies, universal life policies are divided into three elements: protection, expense, and cash value. This unbundling of the policy elements allows you to see the specific charges for each component of your policy, which could make it easier when comparing universal policies from different insurance companies.

When can it be used?
You have a need for insurance and you want a flexible policy
When you have a need for life insurance and a desire for flexible options in your policy, a universal life insurance policy may be appropriate for you. With this type of policy, you choose from two death benefit options and are allowed to change the timing and amount of your premium payment.

You have a long-term cash accumulation need (10 to 15 years)
As part of your overall financial plan, you may be accumulating cash for a specific future need, such as supplementing your retirement or paying for your child’s college education. Universal life insurance can be an important financial planning tool that provides your beneficiary with a death benefit when you die. In addition, the policy contains cash values that can be accessed during your lifetime to meet financial goals. The guaranteed rate provided by universal policies may allow you to predict and plan the growth of your cash for specific purposes (within limitations we will discuss later). In general, you should have 10 to 15 years before your funds are needed for your specific goal in order for cash values to have time to accumulate to a substantial amount.

Provides benefits common to all cash value insurance
Like all other permanent, cash value policies, a universal life policy contains the following features:

  • Cash value grows tax deferred
  • Cash value can be borrowed against (policy loans and withdrawals may reduce the policy’s cash value and death benefit)

You can change your premium payment without prior notice
Universal life provides for completely flexible premiums. Generally, the policy allows you to increase, decrease, and even skip premiums after the first policy year, as long as the cash value is large enough to cover policy expense charges. You have the ability to change the amount or frequency of your premium payment without giving the insurer prior notice. Most insurers suggest a target premium amount to keep the policy in force.

Large premium payments in the policy’s early years, or at other times when cash is available, can reduce or eliminate the need for premium payments at other times. There may be maximum limits imposed by law to prevent excessive policy funding.

If your cash accumulation value isn’t sufficient to cover the current expense and mortality charges, you may be required to make an additional premium payment in order to prevent a policy lapse.

If you pay too much premium into the policy during the first seven years of the policy, you could cause the policy to be classified as a modified endowment contract (MEC) for income tax purposes. Distributions and policy loans from MECs are subject to unfavorable income tax treatment, and may also be subject to penalties if taken before age 59½.

Skipped premiums do not create a policy loan
When you skip a premium on your universal life policy, it doesn’t create a policy loan. Instead, the amount of the skipped premium is deducted from your cash value account.

Skipping too many premium payments could erode your cash value account, so be careful.

Offers choice of two death benefit options
Universal life offers you the choice of two death benefit payment options:

Option A (sometimes called option I)–Fixed death benefit, similar to traditional whole life. The death benefit in option A is composed of a pure insurance component plus the cash value. As the cash value grows, the amount of pure insurance is reduced to keep the death benefit constant. The cash value could grow to a level where it would almost equal the death benefit and thus cause the policy to fail to be classified as life insurance for tax purposes, in which case the death benefit would be increased to avoid the policy losing its tax classification.

Option B (sometimes called option II)–Death benefit increases as cash value grows. Option B operates similar to a whole life policy with a term insurance rider equal to the cash value. The death benefit at any time equals a specified level of pure insurance plus the policy cash value.

You can change your death benefit
With a universal life policy, you have the ability to increase or decrease your policy death benefit, providing versatility within the policy and allowing it to adapt to your changing needs and circumstances. As your insurance needs change with time, you can change your coverage to meet these needs without having to take out an additional policy or surrender an existing one. Increases in the policy’s death benefit may require a medical exam for proof of insurability.

Depending on your cash value accumulation, you may be able to increase your death benefit without an increase in premiums. Check with your insurance agent.

Policy cash value may be withdrawn
With a universal policy, you have the ability to withdraw from your cash value by making a partial surrender of your policy. Generally, you can make tax-free withdrawals up to the amount of your policy basis. You may be able to withdraw from your cash values and still keep your insurance in effect to provide a death benefit at your death.

It’s a good idea to leave enough cash value in the policy to maintain the policy and cover the policy fees.

Cash value withdrawals may reduce the death benefit.

There may be a surrender fee charged for partial or full surrenders.

Policy cash value receives guaranteed interest rate
With a universal life insurance policy, the insurance company manages your cash value and guarantees a minimum return (guarantees are subject to the claims-paying ability of the insurer). Even if the insurance company’s investments perform poorly, you still receive the guaranteed minimum rate of interest on your cash value. This provides you with predictable growth on your cash value and can be especially important when you have specific future financial goals, such as supplementing your retirement, paying your child’s college tuition, or estate planning.

Policy cash value may receive excess interest rate
In addition to the guaranteed rate, you may receive an excess interest rate on your cash value. The method of determining excess interest varies by company, and most companies make adjustments to excess interest credits. For example, an insurer may not pay excess interest on the first $1,000 of cash value, and excess interest is usually not paid on loans taken against the cash value. Some insurers call the excess interest rate the current rate.

Some companies require a partial forfeiture of excess interest in the event of policy surrender.

Cash value growth can be controlled through premium payments
With a universal life policy, you have some degree of control over your cash value growth. If you pay premiums according to the schedule set by your insurance company, you can predict the growth of your cash values based on the guaranteed interest rate. If you pay more than the suggested premium amount, you can increase the balance in your cash value fund.

Increasing your premiums could cause the policy to be classified as a modified endowment contract (MEC) for income tax purposes. Distributions and policy loans from MECs are subject to unfavorable income tax treatment, and may also be subject to penalties if taken before age 59½.

Fees are fully disclosed
The separation of the three components (protection, expense, and cash value) in the universal life policy provides you with the ability to monitor the expenses, cost of insurance, and cash value accumulation (something you can’t do with traditional whole life and other policy types). Periodically, you receive a statement that details the specific charges applied against your account, as well as premium payments and interest credits. Statements may be issued monthly, quarterly, semiannually, or annually, depending on the company.

Cost of insurance (COI) component increases with age
Universal life (UL) policies combine a term life policy with an interest-bearing cash value account. When you pay your premium, part of it may go toward a premium expense charge, while the remainder is applied toward your cash value. That cash value “pot of money” is then impacted in several ways. Interest is added to it, while COI and other fees are withdrawn from it. The COI closely resembles the premiums for annual renewable term insurance, and the cost of the underlying insurance increases each year as you age. As a result, if you choose to reduce or skip premiums, it is possible that your cash value may not be sufficient to cover the COI increases over time.

Request a new projection of your UL contract every few years. This will allow you to monitor your policy and avoid the possibility of your cash value being insufficient to cover the COI.

Premium reductions could result in policy lapse
The ability to reduce or skip premiums could lead to the temptation to actually do so, exposing you to a potential reduction of cash values to low levels (or even worse, to zero). If this happens, you have two choices: increase premium to keep the policy going and cover the increasing cost of insurance, which could be very expensive; or allow the policy to lapse, which would leave you without insurance protection and could have tax consequences.

Policy loans generally result in lower interest rate credit to cash value
When you take a policy loan, the loan proceeds you receive come from the general fund of the insurance company. The loan amount is not actually withdrawn from your cash value account. However, an amount of your cash value equal to the loan amount is marked as collateral for the loan. The collateral amount usually receives a lower interest rate than the amount not borrowed. Because a portion of your cash value is receiving a lower return, your cash value growth is affected for the duration of the policy loan. Unpaid loans will also reduce the death benefit payable to your survivors.

Changes to death benefit level or option could be a potential tax trap
In order to be considered life insurance under the tax code, a policy must maintain a certain amount of risk to the insurer. A “corridor” must exist between the cash value and the death benefit. In other words, the death benefit can’t be composed of cash value only; there must be an insurance element present. If you reduce your death benefit, it could lead to a “force-out”–a distribution of cash from the policy in order to maintain the corridor between the cash value and the death benefit. A distribution resulting from a force-out will be subject to income tax to the extent it represents gain under the policy. A change in the death benefit option from option B (increasing death benefit) to option A (level death benefit) during the first 15 policy years could also result in a force-out and potential taxation.

Check with your insurance agent and/or financial advisor when considering changes to your death benefit level or payment option.

How to do it
Determine your life insurance need and overall financial goals
Before you buy life insurance, you need to know how much insurance you need. Insurance need is based on numerous factors, including your current age and income, marital status, number of incomes in the household, number of dependents, long-term financial goals, level of outstanding debt, and existing insurance and other assets. Your overall financial, estate, and tax-planning goals and your planning horizon should be considered as part of your insurance need evaluation.

Consult your financial advisor concerning your need for insurance. Some of the calculations can be complicated.

Complete the insurance application and name your beneficiary
Before the insurance company can issue your policy, it must receive a completed application form. The application includes general health questions, and the process may include a physical examination, which is usually paid for by the insurance company. A critical part of the application is the beneficiary designation–the naming of the person or persons to receive the policy proceeds when you die. Unless you make an irrevocable beneficiary designation, you can change the beneficiary designation by adding or removing a beneficiary or by changing the percentages of the proceeds distribution.

By paying the first periodic premium with the application, you may be “conditionally insured” until a policy is issued. The “condition” is that you are insurable!

Buy the policy and pay your premium
It is all well and good to know how much insurance and what type of policy is appropriate for your particular situation. But if you don’t actually buy the policy, you haven’t accomplished your goal! Not only that, insurance becomes more expensive with age, so you won’t be doing your wallet any favors by delaying. An additional risk of delaying is that your health could change adversely. In other words, just because you are healthy and insurable today doesn’t mean you will be that way later. Deterioration in your health can mean higher premiums or an insurer considering you to be uninsurable.

Choose a death benefit option
When you buy your universal life policy, you must choose a death benefit amount and option, either of which may be changed at any time. Option A (or option I) pays a level death benefit, while option B (or option II) has an increasing death benefit.

Review your insurance need periodically
The amount of life insurance you need may change over time and with the occurrence of lifetime events. As a result, you should periodically review your life insurance coverage. As a rule, you should review your coverage every three years. Major lifetime events (such as the purchase of a home, birth or adoption of a child, and a change in marital status) are also appropriate times to review your coverage. By routinely checking your insurance need, you can prevent the mistake you can’t fix after you die: not having enough life insurance.

Change your premium amounts and/or death benefit as desired
After you have paid your initial premium, you may be allowed to increase or decrease the amount of your premiums. You may even be able to skip premiums, as long as your cash value account has a sufficient balance to cover the cost of insurance and any expenses. Generally, you can change your payment option and/or premium amount at any time to meet your changing need for insurance coverage and without notifying the insurance company in advance. You can also change your death benefit by notifying the insurance company.

Tax considerations
Income Tax
Premium payments not deductible
Life insurance premium payments are generally not tax-deductible expenses.

Policy loan proceeds generally not taxable
When you take out a loan against your life insurance policy (except a policy classified as an MEC), the amount you receive is not considered taxable income. This rule applies even when the loan is larger than the amount of premiums you have paid in (except in the case of a policy classified as a MEC).

You own a life insurance policy (non-MEC) with a cash value of $20,000. Your basis in the policy is $14,000. You decide to take a policy loan to pay your daughter’s college tuition. Under the terms of your policy, you are allowed to take a loan for an amount up to 90 percent of the policy cash value–in this case, $18,000 ($20,000 x.90). You are not currently subject to tax on the amount of the loan, even though the loan is larger than your basis.

If you cancel your policy while there is a loan balance outstanding, you could be subject to income tax on the amount of the loan (plus any accrued but unpaid interest).

Policy loan interest not deductible
Interest you pay on a policy loan is not a tax-deductible expense when the loan is for purposes other than business or investments.

Policy cancellation may be taxable
If you cancel (surrender) your policy for cash, the gain on the policy is subject to federal income tax. The gain on a canceled policy is the difference between the net cash value and loan forgiveness amounts and your policy basis.

You may be subject to surrender charges, which are often in effect for 10 to 15 years on a universal life policy. Check your policy.

Policy fees and expenses are usually charged against the policy in the first few years. As a result, policy surrenders during the first few years of the policy may provide little cash value.

If you surrender your policy while there is a loan balance outstanding, you could be subject to income tax on the amount of the loan (plus any accrued but unpaid interest).

Policy lapse may be taxable
If you allow your policy to lapse, you could be subject to income tax even if you don’t receive any cash from the policy as a result of a lapse. A policy lapse can occur when you stop paying premiums and don’t have cash values available that can be used to pay the premiums. If you have an outstanding policy loan, it is possible you could be subject to tax on the amount of the loan plus any accrued interest.

Increasing your premium amount could result in income tax consequences
If you choose to increase the amount of the premiums you pay or make additional premium payments on your universal policy (especially during the first seven years), it is possible that the cash value could become excessive relative to the death benefit. This could cause the policy to be classified as an MEC for income tax purposes. Distributions and policy loans from MECs are subject to unfavorable income tax treatment. In addition, penalties may apply to distributions and policy loans from MECs if taken before age 59½.

Death benefits generally not subject to federal income tax
Policy death benefits are generally not subject to federal income tax. One notable exception is when the policy has been sold or otherwise transferred for valuable consideration by one policy owner to another, subjecting it to the transfer-for-value rule.

Gift and Estate Tax
Policy proceeds not considered gift to beneficiary
When the proceeds of your life insurance policy are paid to a beneficiary, they are not treated as a gift for gift tax purposes.

Policy premium payments generally not subject to gift tax
When you are the owner of a policy on your own life, with another party as the beneficiary, premium payments made by you are not considered a gift to the beneficiary for gift tax purposes. If, however, someone else pays the premiums on a policy you own, the premium payments are considered a gift to you and may be subject to gift tax. However, policy premiums paid by another on your behalf generally qualify for the annual gift tax exclusion.

Policy proceeds included in estate value in some cases
The proceeds of a life insurance policy are included in the value of your estate if you held any incidents of ownership at any time during the three years before your death or if the proceeds are payable to you or your estate or executor. Incidents of ownership include (among other things) the right to change the beneficiary, take out policy loans, or surrender the policy for cash.

Policy proceeds often exempt from state inheritance taxes
In many states, life insurance proceeds are exempt from state inheritance taxes.

Questions & Answers

If you are covered under a group life insurance policy through your employer, do you still need a personal policy?
Yes, you should have your own policy outside the group coverage provided by your employer. The policy through your current employer is more than likely not portable–meaning that when you leave the company, your life insurance coverage will not go with you. It is very common for people to change jobs numerous times during their career. Even if you plan to stay with your current job until retirement (assuming your job exists that long), what will you have for coverage afterward? The best way to make sure your family is provided for when you die is to have your own insurance coverage in addition to any provided by your employer. While conversion coverage may be available, it may be expensive and it may offer limited coverage. In addition, it may not meet all of your coverage needs.

Can your spouse own a policy on your life and name your child as beneficiary?
This can be done, but it shouldn’t be. When the insured, the policyowner, and the beneficiary are three different parties (sometimes referred to as the “unholy trinity” or the “Bermuda triangle”), the death benefit may be subject to gift tax.

Can you name your spouse as the beneficiary on your life insurance policy if he or she is not a U.S. citizen?
You can, but there could be estate tax consequences. When your spouse isn’t a U.S. citizen and is the beneficiary on your life insurance policy, the death benefit isn’t protected by the unlimited marital deduction.

Should you buy life insurance on your children?
In some instances it is advisable to buy life insurance on your children, but it shouldn’t be done until the appropriate levels of coverage are in place on the lives of the family breadwinner(s) and a non-wage-earning spouse engaged in the care of the children.

Should you buy term insurance or cash value life insurance?
It depends upon your personal circumstances. The first issue to resolve is not what type, but how much life insurance you should buy, and how long your coverage is needed. Once you can answer the quantifiable insurance question, you can move on to the financial aspect. It is possible that the amount of coverage you need is so large that the only affordable way to get the coverage is with lower-premium term insurance. If you can afford the needed coverage with either type of policy, then you should think about the financial aspect of which type of policy to buy, considering such factors as your tax bracket and the rate of return you could receive on alternative, similar risk investments.

With cash value life insurance, does your beneficiary get the death benefit plus the cash value amount?
Maybe. Check the policy. Many cash value policies are written in such a way that the beneficiary receives only the face amount of the policy at death. The cash value is applied to partially pay off the death benefit. There are policies that will pay the beneficiary the face amount plus the cash value, but the premiums tend to be higher. Don’t just assume that your policy will pay both amounts–check the policy and/or ask your agent.

Should you “invest” in insurance?
One of the benefits of cash value life insurance, such as universal life insurance, is the opportunity for cash value growth. The cash value can be used for retirement income, education expenses, or for many other purposes. However, in most cases, the primary purpose of purchasing cash value life insurance should be for the permanent death benefit it provides.

What is the difference between universal life insurance and traditional whole life insurance?
Both are types of cash value life insurance, but there are important differences between the two. Generally, whole life is designed with fixed, level premiums and provides for a level death benefit. Some flexibility is provided, however, through dividends paid on participating policies that can be used to offset premiums or increase the death benefit, thus creating a degree of flexibility. Universal life policies, by design, offer adjustable death benefits and flexible premiums that can be changed.

Another big difference is the reporting of the policy elements in a universal life policy. Unlike many other types of cash value policies, universal life policies are divided into three elements–protection, expense, and cash value. This unbundling of the policy elements allows you to see the specific charges for each component of your policy, which makes it easier to read reports on your in-force policy and could make it easier when comparing universal policies from different insurance companies.

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