What can your business clients offer their key employees who already have everything? A Death Benefit Only Plan funded with life insurance.
Employees are often the key to a business’s success. A top performing sales person, for example, may generate millions for a business and have access to sensitive customer lists. Retaining these employees is essential, but what can your business clients offer their key employees who already have everything?
They’re already set up with a pension or profit sharing plan and supplemental nonqualified deferred compensation. They draw an impressive salary and have the best health insurance money can buy. How about offering them a plan that promises to pay their families a portion of the key employee’s salary for a period of time, say ten years? And how much more attractive is the plan if it’s receivable by the employee’s family estate tax free?
Under a DBO Plan an employer promises to make a payment, or payments, to the employee’s named beneficiaries if the employee dies while employed by, or retired from, the company. Payments to beneficiaries may be made as a one-time payment or as periodic payments.
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A lump sum payment may be calculated as a multiple of the employee’s annual salary (e.g. six times the employee’s annual salary). In contrast, a periodic payment obligation may be calculated as a percentage of salary and may continue for a definite period of time (e.g. an obligation to pay beneficiaries 75 percent of the employee’s salary for ten years after the employee dies.)
DBO Plans are typically funded with a life insurance policy. The policy is owned by the company and the company is named beneficiary.
After the employee dies, the policy death benefit is paid to the company. Generally, the death benefit is received by the company income tax free. The company will either pay the amount of the benefits to the employee’s beneficiaries from the policy’s death benefit or invest the cash in a tax-free investment that will generate income sufficient to pay the periodic benefit.
Beneficiary’s Tax Treatment of DBO Payments
Formerly, up to $5,000 of amounts received by an employee’s family from the employer were exempted from income tax. But in 1996 the exclusion was repealed. Now, amounts received from a DBO Plan are taxed to beneficiaries as ordinary income if they were received from the company as compensation for the employee’s services. If the payments are a gift, the beneficiaries receive the payments income tax free.
Despite the promising conclusion to the last paragraph, payments received by beneficiaries from a DBO Plan are highly unlikely to be properly classified as nontaxable gifts. In fact, since the 1960s, every published case that’s considered the taxability of death benefit payments by a company to the employee’s surviving spouse has held that the payments are taxable.
Estate Taxation of DBO Payments
DBO payments typically won’t be included in the deceased employee’s estate for estate tax purposes if the employer paid the benefit “voluntarily.” On the other hand, if the obligation to make the payments is contractual, they usually will be taxed in the employee’s estate. Contractual DBO payments are typically included in the employee’s estate because the employee had the right to change the beneficiary during his or her lifetime. If the plan names a standard or otherwise irrevocable beneficiary, the payments probably won’t be included in the employee’s estate.