Life insurance truly is a multipurpose solution. Savvy financial professionals are leveraging the power of innovative life insurance strategies to counteract some key tax planning and estate transfer needs for affluent and super-affluent consumers alike. Definitions of wealth categories vary, but for the purposes of this article, affluent consumers are defined as having $1 million to $5 million in investible assets (excluding their home) and super-affluent clients as having $5+ million.
First, let’s explore a particular wealth transfer issue that, in my experience, tends to impact affluent as well as super-affluent consumers. Then, we’ll review some other challenges that may impact clients in the two wealth categories.
1. Explore the IRA wealth transfer issue
Many people who have been successful in saving for retirement have established a sufficient nest egg to be able to create a legacy for their children, grandchildren and favorite charities, leaving them to wonder how best to leverage their qualified or tax advantaged retirement plans. A common question is whether individual retirement account (IRA) owners should take larger withdrawals and pay income taxes now, or take out as little as possible during their lifetime, leaving a likely income tax burden for their heirs and beneficiaries.
If an IRA owner seeks to protect loved ones and maximize wealth transfer, he or she can utilize life insurance to minimize the tax burden that inheriting an IRA may impose on a beneficiary. Two solutions described here — a “tax offset” strategy and a “tax elimination” strategy — can help the client maximize the after-tax value of the IRA or eliminate taxes paid on the IRA inheritance.
Keep in mind, however, that this article does not intend to give tax, accounting or legal advice. Any tax statements herein are not intended to suggest the avoidance of U.S. federal, state or local tax penalties. Ultimately though, the strategies described herein are designed to provide significant tax savings, maximize the amount of money beneficiaries receive from IRAs, and offer greater flexibility in how the assets eventually are put to use.
2. Consider IRA required minimum distributions
It’s important to give proper consideration to IRA distributions and the resulting tax implications, as these can affect the amount a beneficiary may inherit upon an IRA owner’s death. As you know, beginning at age 70½, the IRA owner must take required minimum distributions (RMDs). Eventually, the RMDs will be larger than the expected annual interest growth.
When that happens, the IRA may well be at its peak value, typically when the account owner is 85-90 years old. (Whether the account is at peak value depends on life expectancy factors, the assumed annual rate of return, and additional deposits or withdrawals made.)
When an IRA owner dies, the beneficiary must include, in his or her gross income, taxable amounts received. As IRAs frequently are transferred at or near peak value and are fully taxable to the beneficiaries as ordinary income, IRA inheritances are often taxed at very high rates.
3. Think about the current scenario
Before reviewing solutions to help minimize taxes imposed on an IRA beneficiary and maximize the value of the inheritance, consider the current scenario. It’s not uncommon for an IRA owner to reinvest RMDs while using other portfolio assets for retirement and living expenses. This leaves the majority of the IRA balance intact and transferred, along with the tax liability, to the beneficiary at the owner’s death.
Additional deferral may be extended based upon titling and certain beneficiary elections; however, income tax liability will vest upon ultimate distribution as ordinary income. Also, a surviving spouse beneficiary may transfer the IRA into his or her own name and delay distribution until age 70½, but the taxation portion of the IRA at the date of death will ultimately be subject to federal income tax.
If a beneficiary is in the 50s or 60s age bracket (often the case) at the IRA owner’s death and is earning his or her highest career income, he or she will pay taxes at a high income tax rate. The addition of the IRA inheritance to the beneficiary’s existing taxable income could push the recipient into a higher tax bracket. The constraints of maintaining the asset’s tax deferred status may not meet the beneficiary’s existing financial and retirement planning needs.
Solution No. 1: Offset IRA beneficiary income taxes
In this scenario, the client uses IRA RMDs to help pay for a life insurance policy equal to income tax due on the IRA from the beneficiary at the time of inheritance. Life insurance death benefits are generally income tax-free under Internal Revenue Code 101(a) — although they may be taxable in part or whole under certain situations — so the beneficiary can use the funds to pay the taxes due on the IRA inheritance. The beneficiary then owns the IRA funds and, having paid the income tax on them, may invest/use the full amount of them without penalty taxes or required distributions.