Tap Permanent Life Insurance

Most of us buy life insurance to provide financial security for our loved ones after we’re gone, but a permanent life insurance policy could provide a valuable source of income for a Alfred retiree while you’re still around to enjoy it.

A permanent life insurance policy has two components: the death benefit, which is the amount that will be paid to your beneficiaries when you die, and the cash value, tax-advantaged savings account that’s funded by a portion of your premiums. With whole life and universal life, the insurance company usually promises that a minimal level of interest, after insurance costs and expenses are deducted, will be credited to your account every year. With variable life insurance policies, you choose the investments and may not get a guarantee.

You can withdraw your basis—the amount in the cash-value account you’ve paid in premiums—tax-free. That could provide a cash cushion in case, say, the stock market takes a 2008-style downturn and you want to give your portfolio a chance to recover. (Withdrawals that exceed what’s in the cash-value account will be taxed in your top tax bracket.) The death benefit will be reduced by the total amount you withdraw. You can also borrow against your policy, and you won’t have to undergo a credit check. Interest rates range from 5% to 8%, depending on market rates and whether the loan is fixed or variable. If you don’t repay the loan, or pay back only part of it, the balance will be deducted from your death benefit when you die.

When you borrow against your policy, you’re not taking withdrawals from your account that you’ll pay back later, as is the case with a 401(k) loan. Rather, the insurer is lending you money and using your policy as collateral. Unless you pay the interest out of pocket, it will be added to the loan balance. If the balance exceeds the policy’s cash value, the policy could lapse, and you’ll owe taxes on the amount of the cash value, including loans, that exceed the premiums you paid.

What if you need a regular source of income? One option is to convert your life insurance into an income annuity through what’s known as a 1035 exchange. The downside to this strategy is that you’ll give up the death benefit, but you’ll lock in income for the rest of your life, or for a specific number of years. The conversion is tax-free, but you’ll pay taxes on a portion of each payout, based on the proportion of your basis to your gains. Your insurance company may offer an income annuity, but you should look at payouts offered by other providers, too.

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If your insurance policy pays dividends, you can generate income without giving up the death benefit. Instead of reinvesting the dividends in the policy, which will increase its death benefit and cash value, you can take the dividends in cash. Dividends typically range from 5% to 6.7%, and any dividends you receive up to the policy’s cost basis are tax-free. Dividends that exceed that amount are taxable.