Life insurance proceeds are typically not taxable as income, but can be taxed as part of your estate if the amount being passed to your heirs exceeds federal and state exemptions. You may face income and capital gains taxes if you decide to get rid of your policy through a life insurance settlement or by surrendering it to your insurer.
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Please note that the information provided here is general, and you should consult your accountant to determine how taxes would be applied in your particular financial situation.
Are life insurance proceeds taxable?
Life insurance death proceeds are not taxable with respect to income tax as long as the proceeds are paid out entirely as a lump-sum, one-time payment.
However, if your beneficiary receives the life insurance payment as a series of installments, the insurer will typically pay interest on the outstanding death benefit. Parents often request to have their life insurance death benefit paid in installments if their beneficiary is a young child or someone dependent on their income. In these cases, your beneficiary would have to pay income tax on the interest.
Estate and inheritance taxes
Estate taxes are an entirely different matter. When you pass away, the executor of your estate will have to file IRS Form 712 as part of your estate tax return. Form 712 states the value of your life insurance policies based upon when you died. If your spouse is your beneficiary, the life insurance payout is not taxed and will be passed on to them fully, along with the rest of your estate that was left to them. Spouses typically have an unlimited exemption with regards to estate taxes.
If your beneficiary is anyone besides your spouse, such as a child or parent, your life insurance payout will typically be added to the value of your estate. This is fine if the total value of your estate is less than the federal and state exemptions. But if your total estate has a greater value than is exempted, any amount over the exemption is subject to estate and inheritance taxes.
- Federal estate taxes: The value of your estate that exceeds $11.7 million per individual . It will be subject to a tax rate of up to 40%. The exact percentage is based on the taxable amount of the estate.
- State estate and inheritance taxes: There are 17 states, plus Washington, D.C. , with an inheritance or estate tax. The estate tax exemption amount varies by state, but ranges from $1 million to $7 million. Tax rates can be as high as 20%, depending on where you live.
As a note, your life insurance policy would only be considered part of your estate for tax purposes. It would not be included in your estate for other purposes, such as paying creditors, unless you named the estate as a beneficiary or all your beneficiaries passed away.
Avoid estate taxes with an irrevocable life insurance trust (ILIT)
One way to avoid life insurance payouts being taxed as part of your estate is to set up an irrevocable life insurance trust (ILIT). You transfer ownership of the policy to the ILIT and cannot be the trustee. However, you can determine who you want as the trust beneficiary.
While an ILIT is an effective way to make sure that your life insurance death benefit is not taxable as part of your estate, there are a couple of situations in which you may face a tax event:
- When setting up the trust, if the life insurance policy’s cash value is greater than the gift tax exemption, you may need to pay a gift tax when transferring ownership. The gift tax exemption for 2021 is $15,000. ?
- If you pass away within three years of transferring the life insurance policy to the trust, the policy will likely become part of your estate from a tax perspective. This is a policy that’s meant to make sure you don’t avoid having your heirs pay taxes by giving away assets as deathbed gifts.
Are life insurance living benefits taxed?
Many life insurance policies come with the option of accelerating a portion of your death benefit if you become terminally or chronically ill. This option can be helpful, as severe illnesses often come with incredibly high hospital and treatment costs.
If you are diagnosed with a terminal or chronic illness and decide to accelerate your death benefit, it’s typically not taxable.
From a tax perspective, it’s essentially viewed as you being the beneficiary to a life insurance payout.
Taxes on whole life insurance
Whole life insurance offers a cash value component that grows over time. Because of the cash value included in this type of policy, it's treated differently from a tax perspective.
Is the cash value of life insurance taxable?
Each time you pay a premium for a permanent insurance policy, a portion of the premium goes towards the policy’s cash value. The cash value is essentially how much money you would receive if you decided to surrender the policy to the insurer . Its growth is tied to interest rates set in the policy terms, and is tax-deferred.
You can also take a tax-free loan from the insurer using the policy’s cash value as collateral, as long as the loan doesn’t exceed the cash value. However, if the loan amount exceeds the cash value, the policy might lapse and you would have to pay taxes on the loan.
Are life insurance dividends taxable?
If you have permanent life insurance from a mutual insurance company, you may receive periodic dividends from the company. With mutual insurance companies, the policyholders are essentially the owners, so the company often distributes excess income in the form of annual dividends. Unless the amount of money you receive in dividends exceeds the amount you’ve paid in premiums, life insurance dividend payments are not taxable.
Transfer for value rule and taxes on life insurance settlements
If you have a life insurance policy in place and decide you no longer need it — perhaps you don’t have kids and your spouse died — you may be able to get a life insurance settlement.
In a life insurance settlement, a third party pays you a certain amount of money to become the policyholder and beneficiary, and they take over paying premiums.
The transfer for value rule essentially says that when you pass away, the third party would have to pay taxes on the life insurance death benefit. However, they don’t pay income taxes on the entire amount. The taxable amount would be the death benefit minus the value of whatever was paid to you, as well as any amount paid in premiums since they acquired the policy.
As the seller, you would also be subject to taxes on the sale of your life insurance policy. A portion of the life insurance settlement is taxable as income, and the rest is taxed as capital gains. Here’s how you can approximate how a life insurance settlement would be taxed:
- Portion taxed as income: This is calculated as the policy’s cash value minus the amount you paid in premiums. Since term life insurance policies don’t have a cash value, this figure would be zero for a term policy.
- Portion taxed as capital gains: First, determine your total gain on the settlement by subtracting the total premium you paid from the settlement you received. Then subtract the amount that is subject to income tax, the previous result, to arrive at the portion that is taxable as capital gains.
Example: Let’s assume you sold your life insurance policy, which had a cash value of $150,000, for a $200,000 settlement. Furthermore, you already paid $125,000 in premiums. The portion that would be taxed as income would be $25,000, since that is the difference between the policy’s cash value and what you paid in premiums.
To calculate the portion that would be taxed as capital gains, subtract the premiums you paid from the settlement you received, leaving you with $75,000. Then, you subtract the amount that is subject to income tax, which is $25,000 in our example. The remaining $50,000 would be subject to capital gains tax.
|Step one: calculating the total gain|
|Step two: amount subject to income tax|
|Amount subject to income tax||$25,000|
|Step three: amount subject to capital gains tax|
This distinction is important because capital gains are taxed at a lower rate than income if you’ve held an investment for more than 366 days.
Tax consequences of surrendering your life insurance policy
If you decided to surrender your life insurance policy or were unable to get a life insurance settlement, the policy’s cash value would determine whether you had to pay any taxes. You wouldn’t owe any taxes if the life insurance policy’s cash surrender value was less than the amount you had already paid in premiums. However, if the cash surrender value was greater than the amount paid in premiums, the difference would be taxable as income.
Since term life insurance policies don’t have a cash value, there would be no taxes associated with surrendering the policy. However, you wouldn’t receive any money from the insurer either.
Are life insurance premiums tax deductible?
If you have an individual policy, life insurance premiums are not tax deductible. They’re treated the same as any other expense.
Group term life insurance policies, typically provided by an employer or association, are different. The employer can deduct life insurance premium payments for up to $50,000 of coverage per employee, as long as the employer is not the beneficiary. As an employee or association member, the cost of group or supplemental life insurance can be added to your taxable income.
If you have less than $50,000 of group and supplemental term life insurance, you wouldn't be taxed on the value of it. However, any coverage over $50,000 is assigned a fair market value by the IRS, which is determined by your age. The amount you pay in premiums is deducted from the fair market value, and the difference is considered to be taxable income.
It may seem odd to pay taxes on coverage that you’ve already paid for, but this rule is meant to account for cases in which you receive a discounted rate by purchasing group life insurance. With group coverage, risk is pooled across a large number of people, so if you’re quite unhealthy or older, you may receive a much lower rate than you would get with an individual policy.
Frequently asked questions
Is life insurance taxable?
Life insurance proceeds are usually not taxable as income. However, you may be subject to capital gains or income taxes if you cancel your policy and withdraw the cash value, or sell your policy in a life insurance settlement.
Are life insurance dividends taxable?
Life insurance dividends are not taxable unless they exceed the amount you paid in premiums over the course of the year.
Do beneficiaries pay taxes on life insurance benefits?
Beneficiaries may have to pay federal estate taxes if the total value of your estate is over $11.7 million. If you live in a state that charges an estate tax and the value of your estate exceeds your state's threshold (ranging from $1 million to $7 million, depending on the state) they may be subject to state tax as well. Even if your state does not charge estate taxes, your beneficiaries may have to pay taxes if the state in which they live has an inheritance tax.