Application of the Transfer For Value Rule to the Sale of Life Insurance

Remember that Internal Revenue Code (“Code”) Section 2042 causes inclusion of the proceeds of a policy on the decedent’s life if an estate receives the proceeds or if the decedent retained significant control over the policy, for example, by retaining the right to change beneficiaries of the policy or to pledge the policy. The Code refers to these rights as “incidents of ownership” and includes the policy proceeds in the estate of the decedent if the decedent dies holding any.

Setting up an Irrevocable Life Insurance Trust (“ILIT”) provides an effective way to remove the value of the policy proceeds from the decedent’s estate. By owning the policy in the ILIT and naming the ILIT as the beneficiary of the policy and including restrictions disallowing the insured to serve as or name a trustee, the insured releases all incidents of ownership. Of course, removing the policy proceeds from the insured’s estate requires advance planning and sometimes the insured obtains a policy without consulting an attorney first.

If the insured did not create an ILIT to own the policy prior to purchasing the policy, the insured has two options:  gift the policy to the ILIT or sell the policy to an ILIT. If the insured gifts the policy, then the insured has gifted the current value of the policy, likely far less than the death benefit of the policy. This may not matter to the insured; however, there’s another issue. Code Section 2035 will include the policy proceeds in the decedent’s estate if the decedent dies within three years of the transfer. For some clients the three-year rule poses a significant hurdle to Estate Planning with life insurance.

Selling the policy to an ILIT for fair market value allows the insured to remove the policy proceeds from their estate immediately, without gift tax consequences thereby avoiding the application of the three-year rule. However, the sale to an improperly structured ILIT could cause income tax consequences because of the “Transfer for Value” Rule. Generally, Code section 101(a) excludes the life insurance death benefit from taxable income. If the policy was transferred for valuable consideration, which would be the case if the policy were sold, then the Code includes the policy proceeds in the policy owner’s income, otherwise known as the “Transfer for Value Rule.”  Unless an exception to the Transfer for Value Rule applies, the proceeds are taxable, except to the extent of the amount paid by the purchaser.

The Transfer for Value Rule contains the following safe-harbors:  (1) a transfer in which the transferee derives their basis from the transferor (gift); (2) a transfer to the insured, (3) a transfer to a partner of the insured, (4) a transfer to a partnership in which the insured is a partner, or (5) a transfer to a corporation in which the insured holds office or is a shareholder. Creating a trust that qualifies as a grantor trust as to the insured removes the sale from the application of the Transfer for Value Rule because it’s treated as a transfer to the insured. Let’s review an illustrative example.

Let’s assume that Grace owned a life insurance policy with a $5 million death benefit. On the advice of Ami Tuer Atty, Esq., she sold the policy for $100,000 (its fair market value) to an irrevocable trust that Ami set up for her. Ami made a critical mistake and failed to ensure that the trust was a grantor trust as to Grace. Grace died a month later and the Trustee of such trust received the $5 million death benefit but was shocked to learn that resulted in $4,900,000 in taxable income to the trust. At the trust’s tax rate, that’s over $1.8 million in tax liability leaving only $3 million for distribution to the trust’s beneficiaries.

Now let’s change the facts a bit. Assume that Grace went to Gray T. Atty, Esq., who created a grantor trust as to Grace to purchase the policy. Again, the Trustee sold the policy to the trust for its $100,000 fair market value; however, under this scenario, because Gray structured the trust as a grantor trust as to Grace, the sale fell into the safe-harbor of the Transfer for Value Rule of a transfer to the insured. When Grace died a month later, the receipt of the death benefit was not taxable income and the Trustee was delighted to distribute the entire $5 million death benefit to Grace’s beneficiaries.

The above example demonstrate the complexities that arise when Estate Planning with life insurance. The example makes understanding the resulting consequences easy; however, it’s important to understand the underlying rules and reasons for the structure to properly advise an insured. There are numerous traps out there for the unwary, this is but one.