Lang Investment Services Life Insurance

Common Tax Traps Involving Life Insurance

Life insurance delivers cash to beneficiaries when it’s needed most. Plus, if the policy is properly structured, the beneficiaries receive the death proceeds income tax free. By understanding potential tax traps related to life insurance, you can avoid costly mistakes. A few of the most common pitfalls are outlined here.

Three people on a policy

If you gift property to another person, the transfer triggers gift taxes based on the taxable value of the gift. When you transfer ownership of an existing policy to someone other than your spouse, the gift is immediate and generally approximates the cash value. There is an important exception, however. When the owner, the insured, and the beneficiary are three different people, the gift occurs when the insured dies, and the death benefit is treated as a taxable gift from the policy owner to the beneficiary. Under what is known as the Goodman Rule, the gift is no longer based on the policy’s cash value but, rather, on its death benefit.

The solution is to eliminate one party. To avoid potential gift taxes, the owner and the beneficiary or the owner and the insured should be the same person. If the goal is to benefit a third party, an irrevocable life insurance trust should be the owner and beneficiary of the policy.

Three people on a policy in a business situation

This scenario is similar to the previous trap except that, rather than triggering gift taxes, the death benefit is treated as taxable compensation of the employee (or as a dividend of a shareholder). For corporate-owned policies with personal beneficiaries, the business is deemed to have received the death proceeds and then paid them to the employee or shareholder’s family. Thus, the beneficiary owes income taxes on the death benefit as a distribution from the business.

One possible solution is an endorsement split-dollar arrangement. With this kind of plan, the business owns the policy but allows the employee to name a personal beneficiary. While the employee is working, the employer is taxed on the policy’s “economic benefit.” If the policy is properly structured, the death proceeds should be income tax free. Keep in mind that a notice and consent requirement must be met before an employer-owned life insurance contract is issued.

Alternatively, an executive bonus plan can eliminate the tax-on-death problem. The business pays the premiums for a life insurance policy personally owned by the employee. While the employee is working, the payments are treated as additional taxable compensation.

Exchange of a policy encumbered with a loan

Under Section 1035 of the Internal Revenue Code, you can exchange one life insurance contract for another without triggering income taxes. But when an existing loan is extinguished in the exchange, it may cause unwanted tax consequences. Generally, if the loan will be cancelled (discharged) in the course of the exchange, then the amount of the loan is treated as ordinary income up to the amount of the policy’s gain. The first-in, first-out rule does not apply when a withdrawal is made from the cash value to pay off a loan during or shortly before a 1035 exchange transaction.

One solution is to arrange for the new life insurance policy to take over the existing loan. Because you’re in the same economic position before and after the exchange, no gain should result. But keep in mind that the loan may affect the new policy’s performance and possibly shorten or eliminate the guaranteed death benefit.

Alternatively, you may wish to pay off the loan with out-of-pocket dollars before the exchange. One word of caution: a normally tax-free withdrawal of basis to pay off the loan shortly before an exchange is treated by the IRS as a step transaction and can trigger taxes.

Gift of a policy encumbered with a loan

Typically, the gift of life insurance creates no income tax recognition for either the donor or the recipient, although gift taxes may be involved. When a policy is subject to a loan, however, the transfer of the policy relieves the original policy owner of the debt. Because the donor is deemed to have received an economic benefit from transferring the loan obligation to the new policy owner, the transfer is treated as if the policy were sold. If the loan exceeds the policy owner’s basis, the donor will recognize taxable income.

Lapsing a policy encumbered with a loan

One key benefit of permanent insurance is the right to take out a policy loan without having to qualify financially. An insurance company makes a policy loan from its general fund using the policy cash value as collateral. Repayment of the loan principal or the annual interest is optional, and unpaid interest is added to the loan principal. If the borrower fails to repay the loan before the death of the insured, the money is simply withdrawn from the insurance death benefit before it is distributed to the policy beneficiaries.

It’s important to note that life insurance contracts may have an automatic premium loan provision that authorizes the insurance company to lend money to pay the premiums if the policyowner fails to do so. Left unmonitored, an automatic loan provision can result in a lapse of the policy and unexpected taxes.

Taking a withdrawal in the first 15 policy years

Normally, a withdrawal from a policy’s cash value is treated as coming first from cost basis and subsequently from the contract’s gain, resulting in a one-to-one reduction of the death benefit. There is an important exception, however. A withdrawal from a universal life or variable universal life policy within the first 15 policy years will be treated as coming from gain first, if there is any.

To deal with this risk, some insurance companies allow for up to a 10-percent withdrawal with no reduction in the death benefit. If you wish to take more than 10 percent of the policy’s cash value, consider structuring the transaction as a loan. Be sure to weigh the long-term cost of the loan against the potential tax associated with a withdrawal.

Incorrectly structured cross-purchase policies

If it’s not properly structured, life insurance purchased to fund buy-sell plans may have unwanted tax consequences. In a cross-purchase buy-sell arrangement, each business partner owns a policy on the other partners. At the death of a partner, the survivors use the insurance proceeds to buy out the estate of the deceased. Thus, each business partner is both the owner and beneficiary of the policy he or she has taken out on the other. Any other arrangement can fall into the transfer-for-value trap.

If a policy is transferred for money or something of value, the death benefit is no longer fully income tax free. For example, the mutual obligation to purchase a co-owner’s business interest at his death would be considered something of value. The transfer-for-value rule also applies when one partner buys a personal policy on his or her own life and makes his or her partner the policy beneficiary.

Exceptions to the rule include:

  • A transfer of the policy to the insured
  • A transfer of the policy to a partner of the insured or to a member of a limited liability company taxed as a partnership
  • A transfer of the policy to a partnership in which the insured is a full partner
  • A transfer of the policy to a corporation in which the insured is a stockholder, an officer, or both
  • A bona fide gift, such as a transfer of the policy to a spouse or trust of the insured

The simplest solution is to purchase new policies to fund the buy-sell arrangement. If that’s not possible, the business owners should try to qualify under one of the exceptions above. If the business owners are not already partners in some business entity, they may consider creating or investing in a partnership.

Using life insurance instead of a trust
To avoid the cost and complexity of a trust, some parents elect to have their adult children jointly own their life insurance policies. In such cases, the parent’s payment of the premiums directly to the insurance company will not qualify for the annual gift tax exclusion. Although the parent is making an indirect gift to his or her children, the gift tax exclusion is only available if each policy owner has an unrestricted right to access the policy’s cash value. With joint ownership with right of survivorship, neither child can access the cash value without consent of the sibling.

Sometimes, a parent may transfer his or her life insurance policy to one child and ask that all siblings remain as beneficiaries, which is a classic example of the Goodman Rule. At the parent’s death, the child who owns the policy will be deemed to give the policy proceeds to his or her siblings, possibly incurring gift taxes.

If optimizing the annual gift tax exclusion is an important goal, consider a trust to hold the life insurance. Alternatively, you can explore ownership as joint tenants in common. With joint tenants in common registration, each owner has an undivided 50-percent interest in the policy’s cash value. Not all insurance companies offer this kind of registration, however.

This material has been provided for general informational purposes only and does not constitute either tax or legal advice. Although we go to great lengths to make sure our information is accurate and useful, we recommend you consult a tax preparer, professional tax advisor, or lawyer.

###

Matthew Lang is a financial advisor located at 236 N Washington St, Monument, CO 80132. He offers securities and advisory services as an Investment Adviser Representative of Commonwealth Financial Network®, Member FINRA/SIPC, a Registered Investment Adviser. He can be reached at 719-481-0887 or at matt@langinvestmentservices.com.

© 2019 Commonwealth Financial Network®

Transfer on Death (TOD) Accounts

What You Need to Know About TOD Accounts

A relatively new option for clients, transfer on death (TOD) accounts offer a unique beneficiary feature. Unlike similar non-retirement accounts, TOD accounts allow investors’ assets to transfer directly to their designated beneficiaries when they pass away, circumventing the probate court process. The TOD registration, which is available for both individual and joint accounts, not only streamlines the account disbursement process, it also lets account holders rest assured that their beneficiaries will receive the intended amount of assets.

TOD features

Streamlined administration. With a traditional brokerage account, the owner’s assets go to the estate upon his or her death, and distribution is delayed until the probate process is completed. By contrast, funds held in TOD accounts are considered non-probate assets and pass straight to the designated beneficiaries. Once a TOD account has been established, neither a court appointment nor an account holder’s will can supersede the Supplemental Transfer on Death Registration and Beneficiary Designation Form, which designates the account’s beneficiaries. If necessary, powers of attorney may be added to TOD accounts, but they cannot establish the account or update the beneficiary designation.

TOD accounts have no contribution limits and can hold all types of positions. When the owner dies, all trading in the account must cease to prevent taxable events to the estate. The TOD account assets can, however, be transferred to the beneficiaries’ accounts, and the beneficiaries may then sell the positions, if desired. In order for a beneficiary to receive assets from a TOD account, he or she must have a brokerage account open at Commonwealth.

Tip: Before opening a TOD account, consider the location of your beneficiaries. For example, if a beneficiary lives out of the country, you will need to plan accordingly.

Unlimited number of beneficiaries. TOD account holders can designate an unlimited number of beneficiaries, each of whom will be considered a primary beneficiary. Contingent beneficiaries may be added as well. The TOD account owner can choose, among other entities, his or her estate, individuals (including minors), trusts, and churches, as beneficiaries.

You retain control. As the account owner, you continue to manage the account assets as you wish. Your beneficiaries have no rights to the account while you are living. If necessary, you can revise your beneficiary designations.

Keep in mind

TOD accounts are not for everyone. It’s important to consider how establishing this type of account will affect your overall estate plan and the provisions of your revocable trust or will.

This material has been provided for general informational purposes only and does not constitute either tax or legal advice. Although we go to great lengths to make sure our information is accurate and useful, we recommend you consult a tax preparer, professional tax advisor, or lawyer.

###

 Matthew Lang is a financial advisor located at 236 N Washington St, Monument, CO 80132. He offers securities and advisory services as an Investment Adviser Representative of Commonwealth Financial Network®, Member FINRA/SIPC, a Registered Investment Adviser. He can be reached at 719-481-0887 or at matt@langinvestmentservices.com.

© 2019 Commonwealth Financial Network®

Market volatility

The Beginning of the End? A Look at October 2018 Market Volatility

Not for the first time, October was a difficult period for the stock market. With the drop seen over this past month, there is increasing fear that this is it—the big one that will take us back to the depths of 2008. Although that level of concern is certainly understandable, a closer look at the real economic and market situation around the world suggests that the volatility we are now seeing (and may well continue to see) is perfectly normal. Over time, this kind of turbulence is why stocks can yield the returns they do.

Still, how do we know whether this decline is normal and whether we’re headed for another 2008? Is there a way to tell?

Is this decline normal?

Let’s start with the easy question first. As of this writing (October 31, 2018), the S&P 500 was down about 7 percent from its peak. It has recovered somewhat from its bottom, when it was down about 10 percent. That seems like a big decline; by recent standards, it is. When we look back further, however, this drawdown remains normal.

Since 1980, for example, declines during a calendar year have ranged between 2 percent and 49 percent, with the average at just more than 14 percent. So, the October declines are well within the normal range. The market could drop another 7 percent (i.e., as much as we have already seen), and we’d still be at the average decline for a typical year.

Another way to answer this question is to see how often a decline of any given size occurs. Markets experience a 10-percent decline every year, on average. Even if things get worse—we are not there yet—this is about the fifth drop we’ve seen in the past five years. In that sense, we are once again right in line with the averages.

Are we headed for another 2008?

These facts are all well and good. Even if things are normal now, however, we need to think about how much worse this situation could get. There are no guarantees, of course. But if we look at past bear markets (defined as declines of 20 percent or more), we can make a few observations.

First, of 10 such events since 1929, 80 percent have occurred during a recession. The U.S. economy, despite some slowing trends, continues to grow; we are not in a recession. A growing economy tends to support market values and limit declines.

Second, 40 percent of past bear markets have come during times of rapidly rising commodity prices (e.g., the 1973 oil embargo). Rising prices tend to choke off economic activity and slam profit margins. Now, we have moderate commodity prices overall, which support economic growth and help profit margins, at least here in the U.S. These moderate prices, generally speaking, are not a problem.

Third, during 40 percent of past bear markets, the Federal Reserve has aggressively raised interest rates. While rates have been rising, they are still very low by historical standards. In fact, they are at the lower end of the range that prevailed from 2008 to 2011, after the crisis. They are also likely to stay low by historical standards for some time. As such, we certainly do not have the conditions that fuel a bear market. Despite the recent increases, low rates continue to benefit the economy, which has supported the market so far and will continue to do so.

Finally, half of the bear markets were born when market values were extreme. Current valuations are high by historical standards but low by the standards of the past five years. As we are seeing, an adjustment to lower valuations is painful. But it also means the risk of a further drop dissipates, which takes us back to the fact that periodic drawdowns are not only necessary but healthy.

Almost all bear markets have more than one of these traits; right now, we have (at most) one and really more like one-half of one. This doesn’t mean that we won’t see further declines. It does suggest that they are less likely—and would probably be short lived.

We can also look at recent history to evaluate how much trouble we might see if the situation were to worsen. Earlier this year, for example, markets pulled back by 10 percent, only to rebound and reach new highs. In early 2016, markets were also down more than 10 percent, only to bounce back to new highs. And we can go back further, to even worse pullbacks. In 2011, when Greece almost declared bankruptcy and broke up the European Union, we saw markets drop 19 percent. In 1998, during the Asian financial crisis, we also saw a pullback of 19 percent. Despite the headlines, our current economic situation is much more like early 2018 and 2016, and it is nowhere near as bad as either 1998 or 2011. Even with those declines, the annual return for each year wasn’t disastrous. In 2011, the market ended flat; in 1998, it gained 27 percent.

What is the outlook for the rest of 2018?

Markets have recovered somewhat from October’s midmonth lows, and the economic fundamentals remain good. While further volatility is possible, based on history, it does not seem likely that we will see a further massive and sustained decline that takes us back to 2008. Worst case, if the Chinese trade confrontation situation gets as bad as the Asian financial crisis or the Greek crisis, we could see additional damage. But we likely won’t see anything worse than what occurred during those pullbacks.

With a growing economy, with strong employment and spending growth, and with moderate oil prices and interest rates, the U.S. is well positioned to ride out any storms—more so, in fact, than we were in 2011. Current conditions look much more like 2016 than 2011. As the island of stability in the world, we are also very attractive to foreign investors, as we can see by the strength of the dollar.

Look beyond the headlines

By understanding the history and economic context of today’s turmoil, it is clear that markets may get worse in the short term. Still, the foundations remain solid, which should lessen the effect and duration of any further damage. Yes, the headlines are very scary, but things aren’t that bad. So, we will be postponing the beginning of the end . . . again.

Certain sections of this commentary contain forward-looking statements based on our reasonable expectations, estimates, projections, and assumptions. Forward-looking statements are not guarantees of future performance and involve certain risks and uncertainties, which are difficult to predict.

 All indices are unmanaged and investors cannot actually invest directly into an index. Unlike investments, indices do not incur management fees, charges, or expenses. Past performance does not guarantee future results.

###

Matthew Lang is a financial advisor located at 236 N Washington St, Monument, CO 80132. He offers securities and advisory services as an Investment Adviser Representative of Commonwealth Financial Network®, Member FINRA/SIPC, a Registered Investment Adviser. He can be reached at 719-481-0887 or at matt@langinvestmentservices.com.

© 2018 Commonwealth Financial Network®

The Role of Financial Planners: Lessons from Nashville

Yesterday, I was down in Nashville speaking at the Financial Planning Association’s national meeting. It was an interesting time! Speaking with the young man at the coffee shop, our conversation went something like this: “I’m from Alabama.” “How did you get here?” “Like everybody else, music.” Clearly, this is a one-industry town, from the convention center (the Music City Center) to the signs for the Grand Ole Opry.

Admittedly, I don’t know much about country music. But from what I understand, quite a bit focuses on hard times—working folks getting stuck with the kind of misfortune that happens every day but who keep going despite the pain. That old joke comes to mind: if you play a country record backwards, you get rehired, your girl comes back, the truck starts up, and the dog comes back to life. If you think about it, all of these things, and worse, happen to everyone—and we all need to get through them. Sometimes, it helps to know others face the same pain and have persevered. That’s what I understand about country.

The soundtrack of our lives

Given that, it makes sense that the financial planners are here. Our job, essentially, is to help people plan for—and get through—some of life’s toughest challenges. Most of us do it without guitars (although I know some terrific Commonwealth musicians), but the soundtrack of people’s lives is just the same.

It’s easy to get lost in the glitz and flash of Nashville. And here in the financial industry, we certainly have our high-profile people. But the core of both is the same: helping people get through the story of their lives and helping them keep going and do better. Just as with country music, there’s money and glitz. But the bones are about real people and real problems.

In many ways, we are in a boom. The market is at all-time highs, plus job growth and confidence are strong. Things are good. While we certainly have concerns, for many people the actual problems are those of success. It is easy to get excited about the market highs, the money we are making, and so forth.

Enjoy the good times, prepare for the bad

But the most important things to remember are that the good times will not always be there, that tough times are always not too far off (in one way or another), and that our job—indeed, the reason for our profession—is simply to plan to ride those out. To use the good times to prepare for the bad times.

That doesn’t sound all that exciting and, in the glitz of Nashville, maybe not that much fun. It is, however, what we do.

This lesson was, frankly, not what I expected to take away from this trip. It is, however, a powerful takeaway for me and, I hope, for you. Indeed, I learned quite a bit during the Q&A session after my talk, much of which will no doubt show up in future posts. I always get a lot out of speaking with advisors, and this time was no exception.

 

Matthew Lang is a financial advisor located at 236 N Washington St, Monument, CO 80132. He offers securities and advisory services as an Investment Adviser Representative of Commonwealth Financial Network®, Member FINRA/SIPC, a Registered Investment Adviser. He can be reached at 719-481-0887 or at matt@langinvestmentservices.com.

Authored by Brad McMillan, CFA®, CAIA, MAI, chief investment officer at Commonwealth Financial Network.

© 2017 Commonwealth Financial Network®