Is Cash Value Life Insurance Taxable?

Person reviewing finances wonders, "Is the cash value of life insurance taxable?"

Key Takeaways

  • Generally, life insurance death benefit payouts received as a lump sum are not taxable. The cash value growth within a permanent life insurance policy is typically not taxable either.
  • Withdrawals, including policy loan proceeds, up to the amount of total premium payments are usually tax-free unless the policy is considered a modified endowment contract. Policy loans may not generate a tax bill, but unpaid loans could result in taxes owed if the policy lapses. Surrendering a policy, or cashing out, can also create tax liabilities.
  • If beneficiaries choose to leave the life insurance proceeds with the insurance company, they may earn interest. This interest is typically reported on their annual tax return and may be subject to taxes.
  • Beneficiaries may opt for periodic payments (annuity payments) instead of a lump sum. The interest portion of these payments is generally taxable when withdrawn.
  • Consulting with a tax advisor and insurance professional before deciding on buying or changing a life insurance policy is helpful to understand and navigate the potential tax implications of life insurance policies.

As you review your life insurance coverage, it's smart to consider how taxes might affect any benefits you or your loved ones receive. For most people using life insurance as a financial cushion in the event a family member's death, taxes might not be an issue. But depending on how you use your policy, you could potentially face tax consequences. Here's what you need to know.

Understanding a Policy's Cash Value

Permanent life insurance policies typically include a cash value, which can be borrowed against and potentially used to pay the premium or purchase an annuity. The cash value has the potential to grow over time and accrue interest. Annual cash value growth in a life insurance policy is not usually taxable.

Withdrawals from a permanent policy can also be tax-friendly, but it's crucial to know the rules and review your strategy with a CPA before taking action. So, when is the cash value of life insurance taxable? Here are a few elements to keep in mind:

  • Withdrawals: When you withdraw money from your cash value, you can generally take out an amount equal to your total premium payments without owing taxes (unless it is considered a modified endowment contract, would require that you pay taxes on your earnings first). However, be aware that withdrawals could cause your policy to lapse, resulting in a loss of coverage. Once your withdrawals exceed the amount you've put into your policy, you would generally owe income tax on those withdrawals1.
  • Policy loans: If need be, you can tap the cash value of your policy and take out a loan. This type of loan may not generate a tax bill (unless, like a withdrawal, the policy is considered a modified endowment contract, which would require that you pay taxes on your earnings first). However, if the policy runs out of money and lapses, you could owe taxes on any unpaid loan balance. Whereas withdrawals aren't paid back, loans can be paid back — and accrue interest until they are. Accordingly, outstanding loans can reduce your death benefit, so evaluate the pros and cons before borrowing.
  • Cashing out: It's possible to cash out a life insurance policy if you need the funds or if you no longer want to keep the policy in force. This is also referred to as "surrendering." With a cash value life insurance policy, you can receive the cash value of your account plus accrued interest — minus the funds needed to pay any loans, unpaid premiums and surrender fees. You will typically see this as the net cash surrender value.

What is overfunded life insurance?

Overfunded life insurance occurs when you pay more money than the minimum premium amount required into the policy. By overfunding permanent life insurance policies, which include whole life and universal life, you can typically grow your cash value. Here are some situations in which you might want to consider overfunding a life insurance policy.

Are Life Insurance Payouts Taxed?

Beneficiaries who receive a death benefit as a lump sum typically do not need to pay income taxes on that payout. However, beneficiaries may have several options available to them, and they could owe taxes on any earnings from a life insurance payout.

Insurance companies often pay interest when beneficiaries refrain from accessing the proceeds of a policy. Those interest earnings are usually reported on each beneficiary's annual tax return and may result in taxes due.

Is life insurance taxable?

Life insurance is generally exempt from taxes when your beneficiaries are paid the death benefit; your cash value increases; you borrow money from your cash value; you withdraw cash value, but it’s less than what you paid in premiums; or you exchange your life insurance for a different policy or an annuity.

Life insurance can be taxed when your beneficiaries owe estate or inheritance taxes, you cancel or lapse a policy with cash value worth more than you paid, you have an outstanding policy loan when you cancel or lapse your policy or your policy is a modified endowment contract.

Why Might Beneficiaries Leave Money With a Life Insurance Company?

For some, receiving a large amount of money — especially after the death of a loved one — can be disorienting. They may need some time to decide what to do with the money, so waiting can help beneficiaries avoid rash decisions. 

Meanwhile, other people may choose to take periodic payments from the proceeds of a life insurance policy (instead of taking a lump sum). These payments can reduce the chances of beneficiaries spending all of their money too quickly. Plus, defined payments make it easy to budget during the coming months and years, potentially replacing the monthly income that the deceased family member once contributed. Interest payments are taxable when withdrawn.

Considerations Around Potential Tax Liabilities

There may be other situations that create a tax liability, although many people — especially those who use life insurance simply to protect against the loss of a wage-earning parent — are unlikely to meet those criteria. Still, it can be helpful to speak with your tax advisor and insurance professional before buying or changing a life insurance policy.

In certain circumstances, the death benefit that life insurance can provide may incur no taxes.

Likewise, policy owners may be able to use the cash value from a policy without owing taxes. However, loans, withdrawals, and surrenders can potentially cause tax consequences, so it's critical to review your plans with a CPA. You may not be able to avoid taxes entirely, but avoiding surprises can make life easier for you and your loved ones.

1 Withdrawals may be subject to charges, withdrawals of taxable amounts are subject to ordinary income tax, and, if taken before age 59½, may be subject to a 10% IRS penalty. Interest is charged on loans, they may generate an income tax liability, reduce the Account Value and the Death Benefit, and may cause the policy to lapse.

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