Life Insurance and Living Benefits
The primary purpose of life insurance is to deliver a large cash benefit to beneficiaries when the insured dies. Protection is the most important purpose of life insurance, by far.
But today's life insurance policies are versatile and flexible tools. Depending on your carrier and the type of policy you own, the living benefits of your life insurance policy create an asset that can help you and your family achieve a variety of financial objectives, even while the insured is still alive.
Permanent life insurance allows you to accumulate cash value, over time. This cash value accumulates tax-deferred, and you can withdraw the value up to the total amount you contributed on a tax-advantaged basis. Death benefits, of course, are generally tax-free to beneficiaries.
Mutual insurance companies - ones owned by their policyholders - generally distribute profits to policyholders in the form of dividends. You can have dividends accumulate in the insurance policy (also increasing the death benefit over time), or you can withdraw them. Dividends withdrawn are tax-free - Congress regards them as return of premium.
Dividends are not guaranteed. Many carriers have issued them every year for generations. But insurers can have bad years, and if that happens, you may not receive a dividend.
Because death is a certainty for all of us, permanent life insurance makes great collateral for loans. It's very safe for the lender, since eventual repayment is practically assured. If you own a permanent life insurance policy, you can borrow against the death benefit, up to the current surrender value of the policy.
This gives you ready access to cash for investment, emergencies or schooling - or for any other purpose. There's no underwriting, and very little paperwork to fill out. You can pay down the loan and replenish your cash value, or let it ride. The loan will accumulate at interest, and the insurance company will pay itself back out of the death benefit. The choice is yours.
Loan proceeds are tax-free. However, if you withdraw the money, you must pay capital gains tax on any gains over what you've paid in. (If you have accumulated dividends, however, you can withdraw dividends tax-free.)
Conversion to annuities
Many people buy life insurance while young and find they don't need the insurance in later years.
However, they may want or need guaranteed income. Section 1031 of the Internal Revenue Code allows you to exchange your life insurance for an annuity tax-free. That is, you won't have to pay capital gains or income taxes on the conversion transaction. You can also make a Section 1035 exchange to a different life insurance policy.
Supplementary life insurance retirement income programs
If you pay into your permanent insurance for years, you may accumulate significant cash value. You can use this cash value to supplement your income without the restrictions of IRAs and 401(k)s. There are no penalties for taking it early, and no required minimum distributions. Dividends are withdrawn tax-free.