Permanent life insurance policies—like universal, variable and whole life—offer more than a death benefit. Some include cash value, which is a pool of money you can use while still alive.
If you’ve had a policy for years, the cash value could be considerable. “The accumulation could be more than you put in, and this opens up all kinds of options,” says Jonathan Howard, a certified financial planner with SeaCure Advisors in Lexington, Ky.
The cash value in permanent life insurance is your money, to be tapped as needed, but your options for doing so will depend on the type of policy and the carrier. Before doing anything, ask the insurer how much you can safely withdraw per year based on the cash value balance and policy terms. If you withdraw too much too early, the policy’s cash value could run out, forcing you to start paying more in premiums or have the coverage lapse.
If you no longer need coverage, it might be tempting to stop the policy and cash out all at once, but consider the tax ramifications, says Luke Chapman, a partner with Precision Wealth Partners in New Castle, Del. Any cash value growth above what you paid in premiums is taxed as ordinary income when withdrawn. For example, if you paid in $20,000, have $100,000 in cash value and withdraw the difference, the $80,000 of growth is taxable.
There are better ways to put that cash value to work that won’t ramp up your tax bill.
Live Off of It
A more tax-effective option is to withdraw only what you need each year. Howard recommends keeping some money for an emergency fund, perhaps 12 months of expenses, with the rest used to supplement your retirement income. Withdrawals draw down the tax-free premium payments first; taxes are owed only after you start withdrawing the gains.
You can also tap the cash value through a policy loan. You won’t owe taxes for withdrawing gains this way. Plus, you’ll have the option to repay the money, whereas you can’t reverse withdrawals. If the money is not repaid, the death benefit will cover the loan balance when you pass away.
The insurer will charge interest for the loan. “The interest rate is determined by the policy contract and is carrier specific,” says Howard. “It’s typically 4% to 8% a year.” Policy loan rates don’t usually change with market conditions, he says, so don’t expect a deal today just because overall interest rates are low. Your remaining cash value can be used to pay the interest.
Exchange It for an Annuity
The IRS lets you swap your permanent life insurance for an annuity through a 1035 exchange, which is a tax-free transfer of one contract for another. This move can generate more retirement income. “Let’s say the max payout stream from a cash value insurance policy is $10,000 a year. Converting to an annuity might generate $12,500,” Chapman says. An annuity could also guarantee the payments will last your entire life, but you will be canceling your life insurance policy, a move that can’t be reversed.
Convert to a New Policy to Pay for Long-Term Care
If you’d like coverage for long-term care, consider converting your life insurance into another policy with a long-term care rider (if yours doesn’t have it already). You keep your life insurance, but part of the death benefit can be used to pay for long-term care expenses.
Use It as Collateral
The cash value is an asset that increases your chances of qualifying for a loan or mortgage from a lender. It can even serve as the loan’s collateral, but Chapman warns to structure the deal carefully, as there can be tax consequences. Always ask an insurance expert before using cash value this way.
Tap It to Pay for the Policy
The cash value can also be used to cover your life insurance premiums.
Leave It Alone
You aren’t forced to do anything with your cash value. Left alone, the cash value will continue to accumulate, leaving a larger inheritance for your heirs, as withdrawals and loans reduce the final death benefit.