Generally, life insurance death benefits that are paid out to a beneficiary in lump sum are not included as income to the recipient of the life insurance payout. This tax-free exclusion also covers death benefits payment made under endowment contracts, worker's compensation insurance contracts, employer's group plans or accident and health insurance contracts.

If a policy is combined with a non-refund life annuity contract where a single premium is equal to the face value of the insurance is paid, then the exclusion does not apply. If the death benefit face value is $250,000 (for example), and the beneficiary elects to receive monthly payments instead of the lump sum amount, the additional interest received above the $250,000 face amount is taxable.

While life insurance death benefits are generally excluded from income tax to the beneficiary, they are included as part of the estate of the deceased if the deceased was the owner of the policy at the time of death. This inclusion as part of the estate may subject the benefit paid to estate taxes both at the federal and state levels. Estate inclusion can be avoided if the owner of the life insurance policy is someone other than the deceased, however; this assignment must have occurred more than three years prior to the date of death, or the IRS will still consider the deceased as the policy owner for estate tax purposes. (Learn how to cut your tax bill while building wealth in Cut Your Tax Bill With Permanent Life Insurance.)

The Advisor Insight

Life insurance offers desirable tax advantages, though it is not exactly tax free. Here are ways your life insurance benefits could be taxed:

  • Withdrawing too much from a universal life policy.
  • Terminating a cash value policy with outstanding loans.
  • Receiving dividends greater than your total premiums.
  • Choosing the “accumulate dividends at interest” option.
  • Overfunding your life insurance.
  • Selecting a payment schedule as the death benefit settlement.
  • Putting life insurance inside a qualified retirement plan.
  • Using a split dollar arrangement to buy life insurance.
  • Collecting on a policy kept on a former employee.
  • Retaining an incidence of ownership in a policy when you have a large estate.
  • Assigning only part of your policy over to your favorite charity as a gift.
  • Transferring your policy for value.

Steve Kobrin
The firm of Steven H. Kobrin, LUTCF
Fair Lawn, NJ