Historically, life insurance has been tax free. As insurance products have become more sophisticated, however, the line separating insurance products from investment products has become a bit more complicated, depending on the type of policy(s) you own. As a result, a mix of complex rules and exceptions now govern the taxation of insurance products. Familiarity with these rules will help you avoid an unwary consequences and help you plan accordingly.
Taxes are typically levied whenever cash changes hands. During the term of any life insurance policy, there are a number of occasions when money can and does change hands. The only question is whether the transaction amounts to a taxable event that triggers current income tax liability. For instance, in most cases, premiums are paid with after-tax dollars. To the extent they are deemed a return of premiums, benefits paid out during your lifetime are usually paid out tax free. Typically, death benefits are received tax free by your beneficiaries after your death. But, the sale or surrender of your policy during your lifetime triggers a tax on the realized gain.
Premiums may be paid with pre-tax dollars
If your company offers the option to purchase life insurance through a qualified retirement plan, then your pre-tax contributions to the plan (and/or your company's contributions) can be used to buy a life insurance policy. However, few companies offer their employees the option to purchase life insurance through their qualified retirement plan. If you do not purchase the insurance policy through a qualified retirement plan, then the premiums have to be paid with after-tax dollars.
Cash value accumulates tax deferred
As the investment element of your policy grows, you realize gains. Generally, you are allowed to defer taxes on those gains as long as you don't sell or surrender the policy. There are a few rare--but important--exceptions.
Dividends are typically not taxable
Dividends are paid out of the insurer's surplus earnings for the year. Regardless of whether you take them in cash, or keep them on deposit with the insurer, they are considered a return of premiums. As long as you don't get back more than you paid in, you are merely recouping your costs and no tax is due.
Cash withdrawals in excess of basis are taxable income
When you begin to withdraw cash from a cash value life insurance policy, the amount of withdrawals up to your basis in the policy will be tax free. Your basis is the amount of premiums you have paid into the policy. Any withdrawals in excess of your basis will be taxed as income. If the policy is classified as a "modified endowment contract," then untaxed earnings must be withdrawn first and taxed.
Policy loans usually not taxable
If you take out a loan against the cash value of your insurance policy, the amount of the loan is not taxable (except in the case of a modified endowment contract). This result is the case even if the loan is larger than the amount of the premiums you have paid in. Such a loan is not taxed as long as the policy is in place.
Interest on policy loans usually not tax deductible
The interest on any loans you take out against the cash value of your life insurance is usually not tax-deductible.
Surrender of policy may result in taxable gain
If you surrender your cash value life insurance policy, any gain on the policy may be subject to federal (and possibly state) income tax. The gain on the surrender of a cash value policy is the difference between the net cash value and loan forgiveness amounts and your basis in the policy. Your basis is the total premiums you paid in cash, minus any policy dividends and tax free withdrawals that you made.
Policy exchanges are typically not taxable
The tax code allows you to exchange one life insurance policy for another without triggering current tax liability. However, you must follow the IRS's rules when making the exchange.
Death benefits usually not subject to federal income tax
Whoever receives the death benefits from your insurance policy (at the time of your death) usually does not have to pay federal income tax on those proceeds. Thus, if you die owning a cash value life insurance policy with a $500,000 death benefit, then the beneficiaries under the policy will generally not have to pay any federal income tax on the receipt of the $500,000. In addition, the payment of death benefit proceeds from a cash value life insurance policy to a beneficiary is usually not considered a taxable gift.
Insurance proceeds may be included in your taxable estate
If you hold any incidents of ownership in an insurance policy, the proceeds from that insurance policy will be included in your taxable estate. Furthermore, if you gift away an insurance policy within three years of your death, then the proceeds from that policy will be pulled back into your taxable estate. Incidents of ownership include the right to change the beneficiary, the right to take out policy loans, and the right to surrender the policy for cash.