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How life insurance can help supplement retirement income

Allen Wastler

Posted on October 06, 2022

Allen Wastler is a former financial journalist with over 30-years of experience, including time at CNBC, CNN, and Knight-Ridder Newspapers.
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Describe how permanent life insurance builds cash value and can be a source of funds in retirement.

Point out that cash value isn’t subject to the volatility that sometimes affects retirement accounts.

Explain that using life insurance for retirement income can offer tax advantages.

Life insurance is, first and foremost, about protecting the ones you love after you’re gone. But some types can actually help you in retirement as well, by providing:

Of course, life insurance should not be a primary source of retirement funding. If used in this way at all, it should be as an accompaniment to retirement accounts and investments made over the years. Whether it’s a good fit depends on your individual financial circumstances. And using life insurance in retirement will have negative implications for the policy’s value.

Nevertheless, for some people, life insurance may be a useful source for supplemental retirement income.

Cash value = A source of funds

Not all life insurance can provide a source of supplemental retirement income. This is only possible with types of permanent insurance, which include whole life, universal, and variable life insurance policies.

These types of policies build up cash value as policyowners make premium payments over time. In addition, some permanent insurance policies are eligible for dividends. While not guaranteed dividends, when paid, can be directed to enhance a policy’s cash value, among other options. (Related: Understanding types of permanent insurance)

And policyowners can withdraw or borrow against their cash value for any need, like paying a college bill or coming up with a down payment on a house. Interest rates on cash value loans from insurance policies may be more favorable than those available for personal loans.

Of course, tapping a life insurance policy’s cash value decreases the remaining cash value as well as the death benefit. It also increases the likelihood the policy will lapse and may result in a tax bill if the policy terminates before the death of the insured. (Learn more: Treat cash value with care)

Taking these cautions into account, the cash value of a permanent insurance policy can function as a ready reserve of funds should the need arise. And in some cases, that need ― using life insurance for retirement ― may arise in the event of a market downturn.

Market volatility and retirement

The value of retirement accounts and equity investments can fluctuate. This can present problems for those depending on those investments for an income stream in retirement.

That’s because taking money from an equity-based retirement account (such as a 401(k) or IRA) during a market downturn will reduce the amount of principal that future returns will be based on. That degradation in compounding will likely be particularly troublesome if done in early retirement years.

“During accumulation, the average rate of return over time is the only thing that matters, but once you retire and start to draw down on your money, the sequence of returns comes into play,” said Douglas Collins, a financial planner with Fortis Lux Financial in New York. “All else being equal, a retiree who faces a bear market in the first few years has substantially less money than if they see the same bear market at age 90.”

Some retirees may have enough cash on hand to weather a market downturn without touching investments. Others may have taken advantage of annuities to provide a guaranteed source of income during their retirement years. (Learn more: Does an annuity fit your retirement goals?)

Also, knowing that markets do, from time to time, go down many investors try to diversify their investments with an assortment of vehicles somewhat insulated from equity markets, ranging from bonds to real estate to commodities.(Related: How whole life insurance helps diversify taxes)

Still, there are risks.

“In a severe bear market like 2008 and 2009, traditional diversification fails because every performing asset becomes correlated and sells off,” said Collins in an email exchange. “Having enough cash value in a whole life policy to weather the storm for just a few years of expenses greatly improves a retiree’s financial ability to fund their lifestyle without having to sell into a down market.”

Tax advantages

There is another benefit in tapping the cash value of a life insurance policy to fund retirement expenses.

Money taken from the cash value of a life insurance policy is not subject to taxes up to the “cost basis.” That’s the amount paid into the policy through out-of-pocket premiums. It doesn’t include any of the tax-deferred investment gains or dividend additions the policy may have had. (Learn more: Tax advantages of life insurance)

So say, hypothetically, you bought a whole life policy in 1980 and paid $140,000 in total premiums. You could tap that as a partial surrender of the available cash value from the policy, based on the withdrawal provisions in the policy, and it would be income-tax free.

Alternatively, you could borrow against the cash value at any time and the amount borrowed would not be taxable as income, even if it is in excess of the cost basis ($140,000 in our hypothetical example). But that can done only as long as the policy is not a “modified endowment contract.” That’s a certain class of policies that receive less favorable tax treatment. (Learn more: Mind your MEC…when life insurance morphs)

As noted earlier, using the cash value of an insurance policy in retirement will reduce its policy value and death benefit and increase the chance the policy will lapse. And if a policy lapses with an outstanding loan in excess of the cost basis, that portion is taxable.

Just in case

With hope, most retirees would never have to use the cash value of a whole life insurance policy, letting it instead serve its primary purpose: To leave a legacy for the protection and benefit of heirs and loved ones.

Nevertheless, a whole life insurance policy can provide a valuable option for supplementing retirement income, particularly in a world where markets and investments can be volatile and unpredictable.

Learn more from MassMutual…

Life insurance and annuity alternatives in investing

Understanding asset allocation

Retirement savings catch-up

This article was originally published in September 2018. It has been updated.


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The information provided is not written or intended as specific tax or legal advice. MassMutual, its subsidiaries, employees and representatives are not authorized to give tax or legal advice. You are encouraged to seek advice from your own tax or legal counsel. Opinions expressed by those interviewed are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of MassMutual.