First things first: You don't have to read this article unless your estate is likely to owe federal estate taxes at your death. In 2020, the federal estate tax affects only people who die leaving a taxable estate of more than $11.58 million, or couples leaving more than $23.16 million. (To learn more about estate tax basics, see Nolo's Estate and Gift Tax FAQ.)
For those estates that do owe taxes, whether or not life insurance proceeds are included in the taxable estate depends on who owns the policy when the insured person dies. If the deceased person owned the policy, the full amount of the proceeds is included in the federal taxable estate; if someone else owned the policy, the proceeds are not included.
Melissa buys an insurance policy covering her life, with a face value of $200,000. Her son Jeff is the beneficiary. Melissa's business partner, Juanita, buys a second policy, also covering Melissa's life, for $400,000, payable to Juanita. (She will use the proceeds to buy Melissa's half of the business after Melissa dies and leaves it to Jeff.)
Melissa dies. All the proceeds of Melissa's policy, $200,000, are included in her federal taxable estate. However, none of the $400,000 from the policy Juanita owns is part of Melissa's federal taxable estate, because Melissa did not own the policy.
It follows that if you want your life insurance proceeds to avoid federal estate tax, you may wish to transfer ownership of your life insurance policy to another person or entity. There are two ways to do it. You can transfer ownership of your policy to any other adult, including the policy beneficiary. Or, you can create an irrevocable life insurance trust, and transfer ownership to it. (But be aware that some group policies, which many people participate in through work, don't allow you to transfer ownership at all.)
All property that you leave to your spouse, including insurance proceeds, is not subject to estate taxes when you die. Your life insurance proceeds would be taxed as part of your estate only if the beneficiaries of the policy are your children, friends, or relatives other than your spouse.
Transferring ownership of your policy to another person involves a trade-off: Once the policy is transferred, you've lost all your power over it, forever. You cannot cancel it or change the beneficiary. Suppose, for example, you transfer ownership of your policy to your spouse and later get divorced. You cannot cancel the policy or recover it from your ex-spouse. In many situations, however, these gifts work well -- for example, when you transfer policy ownership to an adult child with whom you have a close and loving relationship.
The IRS has rules that determine who owns a life insurance policy when the insured person dies. Gifts of life insurance policies made within three years of death are disallowed for federal estate tax purposes -- and often for state estate tax purposes, too. This means that the full amount of the proceeds are included in your estate, as if you had remained owner of the policy.
Louise gives her $300,000 term life insurance policy to her friend, Leon. She dies two years later. For federal estate tax purposes, the gift is disallowed, and all of the proceeds, $300,000, are included in Louise's taxable estate. If Louise had transferred the life insurance policy more than three years before her death, none of the proceeds would have been included in her taxable estate.
The message here is obvious: If you want to give away a life insurance policy to reduce estate taxes, give the policy away as soon as is feasible. (And then don't die for at least three years.)
Another IRS regulation provides that a deceased person who kept any "incidents of ownership" of a transferred life insurance policy is still considered the owner. The term "incidents of ownership" is simply legalese for significant power over the transferred insurance policy. Specifically, the proceeds of the policy will be included in your taxable estate if you have the legal right to do any one of the following:
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