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Mark Twain famously said, “A classic is something everybody wants to have read, but no one wants to read.” Life insurance is a little like that. Everyone needs it, but we don’t like to talk about it much.

Life Insurance as Key Estate Planning Tool

Life insurance is an amazing estate planning tool. I cannot stress enough the importance of life insurance. I, of course, don’t sell it, so I have no economic stake here. It’s just that life insurance is generally reasonably and affordably priced, yet still so helpful with so many financial goals. Replacing a breadwinner’s earnings is one of the most commons ways it is utilized. But, it can also provide liquid assets for a small business when a key partner dies.  Life insurance can also cover costs that you might forget about, like funeral costs or unpaid taxes.

A great resource for learning more about life insurance is an interview I did with insurance agent and industry expert, Christa Payne. (If you are an Iowan, you can just email Christa – she’ll be happy to answer any questions you have.)

While there are many advantages to life insurance, and you most definitely need it, life insurance can also create estate planning issues.

Three Estate Planning Issues Life Insurance May Create

The major issue created by life insurance is that of the “sudden windfall” to your beneficiary. Do you really want, say, your 19-year-old to inherit several hundred thousand dollars at once? Even oldsters with experience managing finances may find a huge influx of cash to be overwhelming.

Another issue to consider: does your beneficiary receive government benefits? If so, proceeds from your life insurance policy might make your beneficiary ineligible for further benefits. By the way, don’t think that those receiving government aid are all elderly. Quite the opposite! A vast majority of Medicaid recipients are under age 44. Regardless of age, any beneficiary on Medicaid, or similar government aid program, is at risk of losing benefits without careful estate planning.

Finally, for high-net worth (HNW) individuals and families, there is the issue of the federal estate tax. Everything owned in your name at death is included in your estate for estate tax purposes. Yes, that includes the death benefit proceeds of your life insurance policy. Considering that many policies carry quite hefty death benefits (several hundred thousand dollars, or more, not being unusual), this is definitely something for those with HNW to carefully consider.

Older person looking out at water

Photo by Ian Schneider on Unsplash

In Trusts we Trust

I’ve explained trusts generally before. A quick primer: in simplest terms, a trust is a legal agreement between three parties: grantor, trustee, and beneficiary. This allows a third party (the trustee) to hold assets for a beneficiary (or beneficiaries).

There are a nearly infinite variety of trusts. And, one type of trust is an Irrevocable Life Insurance Trust, or ILIT.

So, what IS an Irrevocable Life Insurance Trust?

Think of an ILIT as an “imaginary container,” which owns your life insurance policy for you. This provides several benefits. An ILIT removes the life insurance from your estate, i.e., lowers estate tax liability. Like other trusts, an ILIT allows you to decide how, when, and even why your named beneficiary receives life insurance proceeds.

Photo by Connor Betts on Unsplash

Wait, what was that about the three parties?

The grantor is you, the purchaser of life insurance.

The trustee can be anyone you, as grantor, chooses — an individual(s) or a qualified corporate trustee (like the trust department at your bank). But, note a major difference between an ILIT and other kinds of trusts – with a large number of other trusts, you can name yourself as trustee. With an ILIT, you wouldn’t want to do so, because the IRS may then determine that life insurance really hasn’t left your estate.

Who can be a beneficiary of an ILIT?

Most often, spouses, children, and/or grandchildren are the named beneficiaries of an ILIT. But really, it can be any individual(s) you, as grantor, choose.

Your beneficiary and your life insurance proceeds

The conditions under which a beneficiary receives distributions from an ILIT is up to you. You can, for example, specify that your beneficiary receives monthly or annual distributions. You can decide the amounts. You may even dictate that your beneficiary receives distributions when s/he reaches milestones which you choose. For example, you can provide for a large(r) distribution when a beneficiary reaches a certain age, graduates from college or post-graduate program, buys a first home, marries, or has a child. Or, really, just about any other condition or event that you decide is appropriate.

You also have the option to build in flexibility, so that your trustee has the discretion to provide distributions when your beneficiary needs it for a special purpose, like pursuing higher education, starting a business, making an investment, and so on.

And, of course, if your beneficiary is receiving government benefits, an ILIT can account for that, as well.

Good gosh, is there anything an ILIT CAN’T DO?

Once again, an ILIT is irrevocable. While an ILIT provides a great deal of flexibility, there’s one action for certain you can’t take — you cannot transfer a policy owned by an ILIT into your own name. So, if you think that someday you may need to access the policy’s cash value for your own purposes, you probably shouldn’t set up an ILIT.

Options for “ending” an ILIT

Now, I suppose, there’s nothing requiring you to continue making insurance payments into your ILIT. Depending on the kind of policy you have, your policy may lapse as soon as you miss your premium payment. Or, if your policy has cash value, these funds may be used to pay premiums until all the accumulated cash is exhausted. So, that’s an option for “ending” an ILIT.

I bet you have some questions. Let’s talk!

An ILIT can provide you, your loved ones, and your estate with significant benefits. To learn more, contact me at my email, gordon@gordonfischerlawfirm.com, for a free consultation, without obligation. You can also give me a call at 515-371-6077.


*Yes, you’re right – ILIT is really not a word, but an acronym. You caught me. It’s just that Legal Word of the Day sounds more exciting than Legal Acronym of the Day. Also, congratulations to you for being the kind of person who reads footnotes.

**In 2017, essentially, an individual must have an estate of more than about $5 million, and a married couple an estate of more than $11 million, before they need to worry about federal estate taxes.

Two people looking at sunset

When you think about estate planning, life insurance doesn’t come to mind first. Your house, collectibles, and 401k? Sure. Yet, life insurance is present in almost every quality estate plan and can serve as a source of support, coverage, and liquidity to pay death taxes, expenses, fund business buy-sell agreements and sometimes to fund retirement plans. A life insurance policy, when used correctly, can be used to protect your estate and ensure your lasting legacy. Yet, for even the savviest of people who have a plan in place for the future, how life insurance fits into the estate planning puzzle can prove complicated.

puzzle pieces all mixed up

Enter Christa Payne, a Financial Representative for Country Financial in North Liberty, who was generous enough to share her expertise on the subject. Christa has been with Country Financial for over seven years and you can tell she’s passionate about what she does. She finds joy in being a part of planning for the future for all her clients.

Christa Payne
Gordon Fischer Law Firm (GFLF): In general, what role does a life insurance policy play within an estate plan?

Christa Payne: Generally, life insurance is a great vehicle to provide estate liquidity (in order to pay taxes, debts, administrative expenses, family allowance for surviving spouses and dependents). It can also provide debt relief or continuation plans (buy-sell for businesses, etc.), provide income replacement, and wealth accumulation…proceeds are paid to beneficiaries income tax free!

Two parents with two children

GFLF: Can life insurance affect the amount of taxable assets of the estate?

CP: Yes, if you are the owner of the policy, it gets added into estate calculation (up to $5.49 million as of 2017). However, if you give up rights to the policy for longer than three years, it doesn’t have to be included. There are steps you can take to make sure that the death benefit or the replacement value don’t get included in the estate calculation.

GFLF: What are the options for charitable giving with/through a life insurance policy? Can you “give” or transfer your policy to a charity?

CP: Premiums can be deductible, but owner and beneficiary both have to be the charity. Yes, you can transfer your policy to a charity or purchase a new one. Life insurance can be a great way to turn a smaller cash donation into a larger donation!Boy on bike and girl chasing after him with American Flag

GFLF: What are some errors you’ve heard of/seen in regards to life insurance and estate planning? What should people know to avoid these pitfalls?

CP: There are many errors that can be made, including: listing the wrong beneficiary (or failing to update as things change—beneficiaries trump a will!) and having an inadequate amount of coverage in force are two major ones. People should always meet with a competent financial professional and attorney to discuss their life insurance and estate plan. It’s vital to complete annual reviews of the policy, as simple as that seems, things change, and it’s easy to forget. It’s always great to be reminded what policy you have, how it works, and what will happen in the event of a death.

GFLF: What’s the difference for life insurance between revocable and irrevocable trusts? Is one category recommendable over another?

CP: In a revocable trust, there is no gift tax on funding the policy and it avoids probate. The death benefit, however, is included in grantor’s gross estate. In an irrevocable trust, it avoids probate, has asset protection against creditors, and is excluded from gross estate. One is not necessarily better than the other, it depends on the specific needs of each individual client at the time the trust is established.

Family standing around fire pit

Let’s Talk About Your Life Insurance

Take it from Christa, life insurance as a part of your estate plan is important. If you have questions on her advice or think you need a new/updated policy, don’t hesitate to give her a call at 319-626-3516 or shoot her an email. (A resource like this research can also be useful in comparing insurance plans.)

Of course, you also need an estate plan before life insurance an be a part of it)!  Contact me to get started or fill out my obligation-free estate plan questionnaire. I believe our guide comparing the best life insurance policies would be a useful resource for your readers, especially since this is the time of year that many have to re-evaluate their policies:

man-superhero-standing-on-clif

You are, or can be, a super hero. You have the ability to change the world, or at the very least, your little corner of it. You can affect this level of change just by asking yourself one simple question: what causes would I like to benefit in my will?

Bequests to Charities in Your Will

Yes, that’s right. You can include the nonprofits you care about most in your will, leaving a legacy after you have passed on. And, it doesn’t cost anything extra! Just the assets you’re choosing to gift. You can include charities like your church, alma matter, a local cause, or an international organization in your estate plan. And, if you ask the charity you care about most, I’ll bet they’ll tell you that the result of your charitable bequest, no matter how big or small, can make a huge impact.

What About My Kids?

When folks come to me for estate planning help, a major reason they do so—perhaps even the single reason they do so—is to benefit their children. Parents often think, “I love Charity X, but of course I love my kids even more, and I’ve got to take care of my family.” Of course you do! And, of course you should!

superhero-costume-children

How Much Is Enough?

But, ask yourself another question: How much is enough for my kids? If you have lots of assets, and/or your children are adults, and successful on their own, could you provide adequate support for your children and still also include a bequest to one of more charities?

Let’s Talk

Invite the whole family to the kitchen table sometime (even if your kitchen table is a virtual one, via email) and talk about the distributions you want to make at death. Ask if including gifts to charity from your estate plan would be appropriate and acceptable to the kids. Perhaps it’s a charity the whole family supports. Perhaps this will be the beginning of a multigenerational cycle of giving.

Why not talk about it? This can be an especially productive conversation if you can explain that taxes are going to eat up a lot of one or more of the assets anyway, and this can be avoided by giving said asset(s) to charity (since charities are tax exempt).

Life Insurance

Sometimes when parents give a major asset(s) to charity, and their kids’ inheritance takes a real hit, they’ll buy a new life insurance policy to make up the shortfall to the kids. Or, they may even buy a new life insurance policy and name the charity directly as a beneficiary. There’s also a very helpful kind of trust called an ILIT, that significantly increases the impact of life insurance. Without getting too complicated, let me give you the basics.

An ILIT is an irrevocable, non-amendable trust which is both the owner and beneficiary of one or more life insurance policies. Upon the death of the insured, the trustee invests the insurance proceeds and administers the trust for one or more beneficiaries.

What is the Role of an Estate Planner?

When it comes to estate planning, you’re thinking about so many different variables and scenarios, so what if you forget to factor in charity? Lucky for you, that’s why I’m here—to help you maximize charitable giving. That means determining how your generosity can not only help an organization make a difference, but how you can maximize the financial and estate-related benefits from giving.

What One Recent Study Showed

A 2013 study* showed how lawyers, like me, can help charitable giving factor in estate planning. The scientifically-conducted research from the UK-based Behavioural Insights Team showed that when lawyers asked clients specific questions regarding charitable giving, the results were significant. Here are the results:

  • Control Group/Baseline

Lawyers who provided no reminder or inquiry to their clients about possibly benefiting a charity in their estate plan (bequests) resulted in 4.9 percent of those clients including a charity in their plans.

  • Test Group One

Lawyers who asked their clients, “Would you like to leave any money to a charity in your will?” resulted in 10.8 percent of their clients including a charity.

  • Test Group Two

Lawyers who said, “Many of our clients like to leave money to a charity in their will. Are there causes you are passionate about?” resulted in 15.4 percent of their clients including a charity. What a dramatic increase!

Here are the approximate dollar values associated with each group:

  • Control Group/Baseline

Average bequest $5,000

  • Test Group One

Average bequest $4,800

  • Test Group Two

Average bequest $10,200

Again, test group two gives a powerful example of the difference charity-minded estate planners can make.

In the study there were a 1,000 people in each of the groups. That means that the “Test Group Two” raised over $1 million more than the control group.

volunteers taking selfie

What this means for you is that your lawyer plays an important role in reminding, guiding, and assisting you in your charitable giving so that you can use your super power (giving through your will) to the fullest extent.

In 2014, $28.3 billion was contributed to charities through bequests in the United States. Imagine if everyone worked with a lawyer with a strong focus on charitable giving? The impact could be incredibly transformative for the nonprofit work in our communities.

Let’s Get Started

Harness your super powers and get started with your legacy today. The best place to start is by filling out my Estate Plan Questionnaire. It’s easy, free, and there’s no obligation. It’s simply a document that gets you thinking and planning. Already have an estate plan, but want to update it to include the causes that are near and dear to your heart? Don’t hesitate to contact me.

*I’d like to sincerely thank Rob Hilbert, of the Iowa Public Television Foundation, for bringing this study to my attention. I’d also like to thank Rob for being such a strong and powerful leader in the philanthropic community.