Recent surveys show that sales of indexed universal life insurance products are trending right now, and while client interest in using indexed universal life as a retirement income source is stronger than ever, heightened regulatory scrutiny is similarly on the rise. As a result, ensuring that this type of product is suitable for your particular client is critical to avoiding a potential headache down the road.

While some advisors may think that they know all they need to know about indexed universal life, today’s rapidly evolving market environment has created an enhanced need for advisors to not only know the ins and outs of the product features, but also whether an indexed universal life insurance product is the right fit for the individual client’s retirement planning needs.

Indexed Universal Life as Retirement Income

Indexed universal life insurance policies are cash value life insurance products that are tied to a specific stock index—such as the S&P 500—and provide returns based on a formula that is tied to market performance.

These policies often come with both an earnings cap and an earnings floor, so that, for example, the policy might earn no more than 10%, but no less than 2%, meaning that the policy can continue to grow even in an economic downturn.

Once the cash value has built up to a substantial level—over a period of years—the client can begin taking tax-free withdrawals to fund retirement, regardless of whether he has reached the age at which penalty-free withdrawals from a traditional retirement account become permissible. If the client dies prematurely, the policy, of course, still offers the traditional life insurance death benefit that will be paid out (also tax-free) to the policy beneficiaries.

As popular as indexed universal life insurance has become, the client must have the ability to maintain the policy over a relatively long term—at least 10 years—before reaping the benefits of the product as a retirement planning vehicle.

The cash value of the policy will grow as premiums are paid in, but it takes several years before the value of the policy will exceed the level of premiums actually paid.

Further, many indexed universal life insurance policies contain surrender charge provisions that can last for 10 years or more and can reduce the built-up cash value of the policy if the client becomes unable to pay the premiums.

Similarly, mortality charges apply based on the client’s age and health, and must be deducted from the contract’s value over time.

As a result, indexed universal life is most suitable for relatively young clients who have at least 10 years until retirement. This ensures that the client has the necessary funds to continue paying premiums on the policy and that the policy cash value will have accumulated to a sufficient level.

The Regulatory Environment

Tied to the recent surge in the popularity of indexed universal life insurance, both state regulators and the National Association of Insurance Commissioners (NAIC) have begun investigating whether the sales practices employed in connection with these products are permissible.

As a result, it is important that advisors understand the complexities of the product in order to provide clients with an accurate picture of the investment. While these products do provide downside protection, the earnings cap limits the growth potential so that, over time, investment gains are often more comparable to a bond investment than a stock market investment.

Further, in some cases, the insurance company that issues the policy retains the right to change both the mortality charges and the formula that governs the way interest is credited to the client’s account, so it is crucial that the client understands the fine print before purchasing the policy.

Conclusion

While indexed universal life insurance is growing in popularity, regulatory scrutiny has drawn attention to the fact that the product is not suitable for every client. As with other products, it is therefore critical that advisors evaluate the contract terms in light of the individual client’s circumstances. 

Originally published on National Underwriter Advanced Markets. National Underwriter Advanced Markets is the premier resource for financial planners, wealth managers, and advanced markets professionals who provide clients with expert financial and retirement planning advice.

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