When Whole Life Insurance Doesn’t Last Your Whole Life


When you see the term “permanent life insurance,” does that lead you to believe that it will cover you for your entire life? That’s an honest mistake, but a potentially costly one.

“Permanent life insurance,” as Tamara Holmes at InsuranceQuotes points out, is an umbrella term for insurance that covers you for a long period of time. Unlike term life insurance, which only covers a fixed period of 20 to 30 years or so, permanent life insurance comes in several tiers.

Whole life insurance policies require policyholders to pay a set premium, but pays out a fixed amount if you die. Variable life insurance invests your premium and pays a benefit based on how the market performs. Universal life insurance, meanwhile, lets you adjust payments as needed, but also adjusts the death benefit accordingly.

However, some of those options have a maturity date, where they simply pay out the cash value to the policyholder. The Texas Department of Insurance points out that many of those policies reach their maturity date when the policyholder turns 95 or 100. At that point, the death benefit is paid out in cash and comes with significant tax consequences.

It’s an increasingly plausible scenario: Eight percent of women who are currently age 45 can expect to live to 100, according to a MarketWatch analysis of Social Security Administration actuarial data.

“After years of paying premiums for a policy you expect to remain in place until your death, you may lose the benefit of passing wealth to your heirs tax-free,” says certified financial planner Shomari Hearn with Palisades Hudson Financial Group. “Sometimes you won’t even get full value from your policy.”

A life insurance death benefit is typically exempt from federal taxation if it’s less than $5 million. If your policy matures, however, not only will your beneficiaries not receive the benefit, but the portion of the payout that exceeds the premiums paid will be taxed as ordinary income, according to Hearn.

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In the case of a whole-life policy, the cash value will equal the death benefit plus accumulated interest, if any. Unfortunately, if you opt for variable life or a variable universal life to get a lower premium, you might be in for a surprise. “If investment results are poor, the cash value at maturity may be considerably less than the promised death benefit,” Hearn says.

Fortunately, there are ways to fix this issue. Hearn notes that if you’ve purchased your policy within the last 15 years or so, the maturity age is likely 120. Still, since age 100 was the default for many years prior to that, it pays to check the terms of your policy. Some older policies mature at 95 or 96.

If you’re stuck with an older policy and an early maturity date, you can ask your insurer for a “maturity extension rider” to extend the policy’s maturity age to 120. There may be a fee for the rider ($5 to $10 a month), but be aware that not all insurers offer it. Generally, though, the death benefit of a policy with an extension rider is the cash value of the policy at the original maturity date plus accumulated interest, without additional premiums.

“If the insurer grants the rider, you may be able to avoid a taxable event, and your beneficiaries will receive the policy’s benefits upon your death as originally planned,” Hearn says.

But even that may not prevent a tax hit. The Internal Revenue Service may rule that you still owe tax at the policy’s original maturity date under the principle of “constructive receipt.” Even if you don’t take the lump-sum payout, the IRS may have questions. Hearn notes that insurers are fighting the IRS on this, since the outcome is still unclear.

“However, it’s still worthwhile because a maturity rider will secure the policy’s death benefit for your beneficiaries,” Hearn says.

Unfortunately, Hearn says even obtaining that rider may be difficult for those who choose universal life over whole life insurance. Even those with a whole life policy have to hope the insurer will cooperate. If they won’t budge, you may be able to buy a replacement policy with the now-standard age 120 maturity. This is much easier to do when you’re healthy and younger than 70 than when you’re older and sicker.

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Another option, a Section 1035 exchange, allows you to swap an old policy for a new one without incurring a taxable gain. As long as the owner and insured are the same on the old and new contracts, it shouldn’t be a problem.

“Make sure you obtain the replacement policy before surrendering your existing policy to avoid being left without coverage,” Hearn says.

Finally, if you can’t or don’t want to make an exchange and the maturity date is coming up, the best bad option on the table involves converting the policy into an annuity. This spreads out the tax liability over several years instead of having it all crash down on you in one year. A portion of each annuity payment is taxable, Hearn says.

“As more people live to celebrate their 100th birthdays, a firmer answer on how the IRS and insurers will handle policies with too-short maturation dates should eventually arrive, Hearn says. “In the meantime, policyholders need to take proactive steps if they wish to capture the full value of their ‘permanent’ insurance policies.”