Life insurance serves a valuable social purpose, allowing families to protect themselves against the economic consequences of an untimely death of a breadwinner. In fact, life insurance is viewed as such a positive that Congress provides significant tax preferences for insurance policies, including tax-deferral on any growth in the cash value, and a tax-free death benefit for the beneficiaries.
Another popular tax feature of life insurance is the ability to access the policy’s cash value in the form of a tax-free loan. However, in reality the tax-free treatment of a life insurance policy loan is not actually a preference for life insurance under the tax code, but the simple recognition that ultimately a policy loan is just a personal loan between the life insurance company and the policyowner, for which the life insurance cash value is collateral. A credit card cash advance isn’t taxable, nor is a cash-out mortgage refinance, and a personal loan from a life insurance company isn’t, either.
However, while a life insurance loan isn’t taxable – nor is its subsequent repayment – the presence of a life insurance loan can distort the outcome if/when a life insurance policy is surrendered or otherwise lapses. Because the insurance company will require that the loan be repaid from the proceeds of the policy.
In the case of a life insurance death benefit, this isn’t necessarily problematic. The death benefit is already tax-free, and the loan is simply repaid from the tax-free death benefit, with the remainder paid to heirs.
When a life insurance policy is surrendered or otherwise lapses, though, the remaining cash value is again used to repay the loan… even though the taxable gain is calculated ignoring the presence of the loan. Which means in the extreme, it’s possible that a life insurance policy can lapse without any remaining net cash value, due to a loan repayment, yet still produce a significant income tax liability based on the policy’s gains. This “tax bomb” occurs because in the end, even if all of a policy’s cash value is used to repay a life insurance loan, it doesn’t change the fact that if the policy had a taxable gain, the taxes are still due on the gain itself!