Today’s economic uncertainty challenges producers in all areas of the life insurance business. Low prevailing interest rates can make life policies with fixed-interest features a tough sell, while a slumping stock market can make variable products unattractive to tentative clients. Underneath these factors are the continuing subprime mortgage crisis, spiraling energy prices and other financial pressures that can put life insurance purchases lower on the priority lists of most consumers.
Of course, “most consumers” do not encompass high-net-worth clients whose significant financial means and sophisticated requirements transcend today’s economic turbulence. These clients always require life insurance policies, both for the unique ability to provide near-term death benefit coverage and longer-term, tax-preferred cash value accumulation.
These individuals also focus on their estate plans to ensure that the effects of any federal estate tax law developments in 2009 and beyond do not adversely affect their legacies. A wait-and-see approach cannot suffice when issues as important as wealth transfer to loved ones, dispositions of businesses, and endowments of favorite charities are at stake.
For clients with a net worth exceeding $5 million, the demand for solid estate planning steps today may run head-on into liquidity and investment considerations. These considerations may make it less advantageous to lay out the large premium payments that accompany life policies with multi-million dollar face amounts.
Potential solution: premium financing
For such clients, producers may wish to discuss a premium financing arrangement. Premium financing lets clients buy life insurance without immediately liquidating other investments or otherwise changing their normal cash flow. When properly structured, it may also help them transfer assets to family members and charities with potentially reduced gift and estate-tax costs.
In a nutshell, premium financing allows the client to borrow money to pay life insurance premiums. Depending on interest rates, policy crediting rates and charges, and mortality and other factors, premium financing arrangements may even be less expensive than paying life insurance premiums outright. Even if that’s not the case, premium financing may be attractive to clients with non-liquid assets and those who wish to fund an irrevocable life insurance trust without paying gift taxes.
Typically, premium financing is used as part of an estate plan. To keep the death benefits outside of the insured’s taxable estate, the client may use an irrevocable life insurance trust to purchase and own the life insurance policy. Premium financing is an arrangement between a bank and the client’s ILIT where the trust is the borrower.
In a typical arrangement, an ILIT borrows money from a lender and uses the funds to buy a policy insuring the life of the client (and spouse, if applicable). To the extent the policy does not have sufficient cash surrender value to collateralize the loan, the client is also asked to pledge a standby letter of credit or other assets acceptable to the lender to make up the collateral shortfall. (The extent to which such guarantees may in themselves trigger gift tax issues is beyond the scope of this article.)
The ILIT will either make annual interest payments on the loan or the interest will be accrued and added to the principal of the loan. When the insured dies, part of the death benefit will pay off the loan and the rest will go to the ILIT to benefit the client’s heirs.
The underlying trade-off involves the rate of interest the bank lender charges. The interest rates charged on a premium financing loan vary by lender, loan amount, and loan terms, such as if interest will be paid in advance or arrears, but the rates are often stated as a margin rate over the London Interbank Offered Rate (LIBOR). Typically, the larger the loan and non-accrued interest, the lower the margin.
Indeed, these clients should be comfortable with the risks often associated with premium financing: interest rate risk and collateral risk. In both cases–either a rise in interest rates charged on the loan and/or a drop in the value of collateral (including the policy) that support the loan–the client could be forced to pay more interest and/or post additional collateral or risk loan default. In the event of default, the lender could foreclose on the collateral, including the policy.
Three attractive prospects
Beyond tax implication and interest-rate arbitrage, there are reasons why high net worth individuals may prefer premium financing to paying premiums with cash in hand or by liquidating assets. In the current economy, 3 types of clients may experience the greatest benefit.
1. The professional