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Sidestepping A Life Insurance Trap

Life insurance can be a lifesaver for a family whose main breadwinner unexpectedly passes away. But there may be steps you should consider that go beyond buying sufficient coverage to protect your family.

A primary goal is to keep life insurance proceeds from being included in your taxable estate, which could reduce their value. Normally, that will happen if the proceeds are payable to the estate or are received by someone else for the benefit of the estate. So the first step in avoiding this trap is to designate beneficiaries such as a spouse or a child who don't fall into those categories and to grant them full control over those assets. But that may not be the entire solution.

Even if proceeds aren't made payable to the estate, they count as assets of the insured person's taxable estate if he or she possessed "incidents of ownership" in the policy on the date of death. Furthermore, this rule applies to any incidents of ownership transferred during the final three years before death.

What is an "incident of ownership"? The definition goes beyond mere legal ownership and rights to the economic benefits of a policy. The list includes items such as the power to change beneficiaries; to revoke assignments of benefits; to obtain loans against the policy's cash value; to pledge the policy as collateral for a loan; and to surrender or cancel the policy. But the right to receive dividends and the right to veto the sale of an insurance policy by a trustee of an irrevocable life insurance trust aren't considered incidents of ownership.

If you buy life insurance and transfer all incidents of ownership in the policy more than three years before your death, all of the proceeds will be exempt from federal estate tax. Although the transfer is subject to gift tax, in most cases you can shield the transfer from tax through the annual gift tax exclusion and generous unified estate and gift tax exemption. Or you might create an irrevocable life insurance trust, which also can help shield proceeds from estate tax.

Big changes in the estate and gift tax laws could be coming, but now is an opportunity to protect your interests under current law without risking future harm.