Aside from the death benefit, one of the great things about permanent life insurance is that it accumulates cash value. Your policy becomes an asset you own. And with whole life insurance, your accumulated cash value never goes down. That can make life insurance an incredibly stable asset in your financial plan.

Whether you need to cover an emergency expense, help pay for college costs or simply want to be able to weather down markets in retirement, you can access your cash value throughout your life for any financial need.1

One common way to make use of your cash value is to borrow against it. But before you take a loan against your policy, here are a few things you should know.

How life insurance loans work

A policy loan gives you quick access to cash should you need it. You simply fill out a form and the insurance company will send you the money within a couple of days.

Repaying a policy loan is also easy and flexible. Unlike most traditional loans, a policy loan does not have a fixed repayment schedule. If you want to make a large payment one month, you can. If you want to pay nothing one month, you can. But it’s worth noting that your loan will accumulate interest. That means that if you don’t make payments, the balance will increase over time. Once you repay your loan, the full benefits of the policy will be restored.

If you have a loan against your policy when you die, the death benefit will be reduced by the amount of the loan. And if the loan balance gets too high, the insurance company will surrender your policy to pay it.

The tax implications of borrowing against life insurance

When you sell traditional investments, you owe taxes on any gain. If you surrender a life insurance policy, you’ll also owe taxes on the gain (money you made above the amount you paid in). However, in most cases you won’t owe taxes if you’re simply taking a loan against your insurance, so long as your policy stays in place.2 This can be particularly beneficial in retirement if you’re working to manage the taxes you owe in a particular year.

However, it’s important to work with a financial advisor as there can also be a negative tax consequence if your loan balance gets too high. If you don’t make payments on a policy loan, interest will accrue — and if the interest is not paid, it will be added to your loan balance, increasing the amount you owe. At some point, if you don’t make payments on the principal or interest, the loan balance could become equal to your policy’s cash value. Once that’s the case, your policy will lapse. At that point two things will happen. First, the insurance company will surrender your policy. Second, the company will use the cash proceeds from the surrender to pay off the loan balance. In such cases, you most likely won’t receive any surrender proceeds from the policy.

So what’s the tax consequence? First, let’s discuss a policy surrender and assume there is no loan. Say you have a policy with a cash value of $200,000, and you paid $90,000 in premiums over the years. If you were to surrender your policy and walk away with the cash value, you would recover the $90,000 you paid in, tax-free. The $110,000 gain, however, would be taxed as ordinary income. If you were in a 30 percent tax bracket, that would result in you owing the government about $33,000. You would walk away with $167,000 after you paid the tax.

Now let’s add the loan. Say you borrowed $100,000 and never made any repayments. The interest would compound, and in the ensuing years, if you never repaid any of the loan interest and/or principal, your total loan balance would approach the total cash value. If the total loan balance got too high, the policy would lapse, and the company would terminate, or surrender, your policy (step 1) and use the proceeds to pay off the loan the company gave to you (step 2).

From a tax perspective, the first step (the policy surrender) is treated the same whether the money is used to repay the loan balance or taken as cash with no loan involved. You would still owe $33,000 in income tax — but you wouldn’t receive any surrender proceeds from the policy to help you pay that tax.

So long as you monitor your loan balance and work with a financial advisor on your options, a policy loan can be a great way to quickly access funds for a variety of financial needs throughout your life. Your advisor can help you make sure you understand all the implications and how the loan works in the context of your broader financial plan, so that you’re confident it is the right decision for you.

1Generally, the death benefit of life insurance policies that have not been transferred for value is received free from ordinary income tax. Estate taxes may apply. Partial surrenders of life insurance policies are treated first as tax-free distributions of the investment in the contract (aka, “cost basis”) followed by taxable distributions of gain once all the cost basis has been distributed. If the policy is also a Modified Endowment Contract (“MEC”), partial surrenders are treated first as distributions of gain, subject to ordinary income taxation and possibly subject to an additional 10 percent penalty tax if the owner is under age 59 ½. 

If a policy is not a MEC, policy loans are not treated as taxable distributions at the time they are taken. Unpaid loan interest is capitalized to the loan principal and the loan balance may grow large enough to cause the policy to lapse. If a policy lapses or is surrendered prior to the insured’s death, the loan will be repaid from the policy’s cash value and taxed as a distribution, subject to ordinary income taxation to the extent the loan exceeds the cost basis. If a policy is a MEC, loans, including capitalized loan interest, are treated as distributions at the time they are taken and subject to the same rules as partial surrenders, as described above.

2If your policy is a modified endowment contract (MEC), you may owe taxes when taking a loan.

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