Universal Life Insurance

Universal life is was developed from whole life insurance. The potential advantage of the universal life policy is in its flexibility and the potential for greater cash value growth if the interest rates offered outperform the insurer's general account (that whole life policy cash value growth is based on). Universal life is more flexible than whole life in two primary ways: the death benefit and usually the premium payment are flexible.

The death benefit can be increased (subject to insurability) and decreased without surrendering the policy or getting a new one as would be required with whole life. Also a range of premium payments can be made to the policy, from a minimum amount to cover various guarantees the policy may offer to the maximum amount allowed by IRS rules.

The primary difference is that the universal life policy shifts some of the risk for maintaining the death benefit to the insured. In a whole life policy, as long as every premium payment is made, the death benefit is guaranteed to be paid if the insured dies. In a UL the policy will lapse (the death benefit will no longer be in force) if the cash value or premium payments are not enough to cover the cost of insurance. To make their policies more attractive insurers often add guarantees, where if certain premium payments are made for a given period, the policy will remain in force even if the cash value drops to zero.


Single Premium UL

Single Premium UL is paid for by a single, substantial, initial payment. The policy remains in force so long as the COI charges have not depleted the account. Since changes in the tax code, this type of policy is now called a "Modified Endowment Contract (MEC)" and is subject to different tax treatment. All policies paid up in 5 or less years are subject to this same negative tax treatment.

Fixed Premium UL

Fixed Premium UL is paid for by periodic premium payments. Generally these payments will be for a shorter period of time than the policy is in force; for example payments may be made for 10 years, with the intention that thereafter the policy is paid-up. If the experience of the plan is not as good as predicted, the account value at the end of the premium period may not be adequate to continue the policy as originally written. In this case, the policyholder may have the choice to either: 1. Leave the policy alone, and let it potentially expire early (if COI charges deplete the account), or 2. Make additional or higher premium payments, to keep the death benefit level, or 3. Lower the death benefit.

Flexible Premium UL

Flexible Premium UL allows the policyholder to determine how much they wish to pay each time premium is due. In addition, Flexible Premium UL offers two different death benefit options: 1. A level death benefit (often called Option A), or 2. A level amount at risk (often called Option B). This is also referred to as an increasing death benefit. Policyholders frequently buy Flexible Premium UL with a large initial deposit, thereafter making payments irregularly.

Variable Universal Life Insurance

Variable Universal Life Insurance (often shortened to VUL) is a type of life insurance that builds a cash value. In a VUL, the cash value can be invested in a wide variety of separate accounts, similar to mutual funds, and the choice of which of the available separate accounts to use is entirely up to the contract owner. The 'variable' component in the name refers to this ability to invest in volatile investments similar to mutual funds.

The 'universal' component in the name is a bit of a misnomer that is used to refer to the flexibility the owner has in making premium payments. The premiums can vary from nothing in a given month up to maximums defined by the Internal Revenue Code for life insurance. This flexibility is in contrast to whole life insurance that has fixed premium payments that typically cannot be missed without lapsing the policy.

Variable universal life insurance receives special tax advantages in the United States Internal Revenue Code. The cash value in life insurance is able to earn investment returns without incurring current income tax as long as it meets the definition of life insurance and the policy remains in force. The tax free investment returns could be considered to be used to pay for the costs of insurance inside the policy. Another use of Variable Universal Life Insurance is among relatively wealthy persons who give money yearly to their children to put into VUL policies under the gift tax exemption. Very often persons in the United States with a net worth high enough that they will encounter the estate tax give money away to their children to protect that money being taxed. Often this is done within a VUL policy because this allows a tax deferral (for which no alternative would exist besides tuition money saved in an educational IRA or 529 plan), provides for permanent life insurance, and can usually be accessed by borrowing against the policy.
By allowing the contract owner to choose the investments inside the policy the insured takes on the investment risk, and receives the greater potential return of the investments in return. If the investment returns are very poor this could lead to a policy lapsing (ceasing to exist as a valid policy). To avoid this, many insurers offer guaranteed death benefits up to a certain age as long as a given minimum premium is paid. Average returns in these types of policies exceed 28% per year.
VUL policies have a great deal of flexibility in choosing how much premiums to pay for a given death benefit. The minimum premium is primarily affected by the contract features offered by the insurer. To maintain a death benefit guarantee, that specified premium level must be paid every month. To keep the policy in force, typically no premium needs to be paid as long as there is enough cash value in the policy to pay that month's cost of insurance. The maximum premium amounts are heavily influenced by the code for life insurance. Internal Revenue Code section 7702 sets limits for how much cash value can be allowed and how much premium can be paid (both in a given year, and over certain periods of time) for a given death benefit.
The most efficient policy in terms of cash value growth would have the maximum premium paid for the minimum death benefit. Then the costs of insurance would have the minimum negative effect on the growth of the cash value. In the extreme would be a life insurance policy that had no life insurance component, and was entirely cash value. If it received favorable tax treatment as a life insurance policy it would be the perfect tax shelter, pure investment returns and no insurance cost.
The number and type of choices available is dependent on the insurer, but some policies are available with a wide variety of of separate accounts, also known as sub-accounts. Some insurers offer over 50 separate accounts with investment styles from very conservative guaranteed fixed accounts, to bond funds, to equity funds to highly aggressive sector funds. Separate accounts are organized as trusts to be managed for the benefit of the insureds, and are named because they are kept separate from the general account which is the other reserve assets of the insurer. They are treated, and in all intents and purposes are, very much like mutual funds, but have slightly different regulatory requirements.
Taxes are the main reason those in higher tax brackets (25%+) would desire to use a VUL over any other accumulation strategy. For someone in a 34% tax bracket (Federal & State), the investment return on the sub-accounts may average 10%, and at say age 75 the policy's death benefit would have an internal rate of return of 9%. In order to get a 9% rate of return in an ordinary taxable account, in a 34% tax bracket, one must earn 13.64%.
  • Tax free investment earnings while a policy is in force
  • FIFO withdrawal status on principal paid into the contract
  • Tax free policy loans from non-MEC policies
  • The death benefit is paid income tax free if premiums are paid with after tax money.
Another alternative is a Roth IRA, because one would get the 10% tax free. But the limits on the Roth are low, and the Roth is normally unavailable to those in the 34% tax bracket. These numbers assume expenses that may vary from company to company, and it is assumed that the VUL is funded with a minimum face value for the level of premium. The cash values would also be available to fund lifestyle or personally managed investments on a tax free basis in the form of refunds of premiums paid in and policy loans (which would be paid off on death by the death benefit.)
Cost of Insurance
The cost of insurance for VULs is generally based on term rates.
Cash Outlay
The cash needed to effectively use a VUL is generally much higher than other types of insurance policies. If a policy does not have the right amount of funding, it may lapse.
Investment Risk
Because the sub accounts in the VUL may be invested in stocks and bonds, the insured now takes on the investment risk rather than the insurance company.
The VUL is a complex product, and can easily be used (or sold) inappropriately because of this. Proper funding, investing, and planning are usually required in order for the VUL to work as expected.
Financial Protection
VULs can be used to protect a family in the case of a premature death. A VUL can be attractive for this need because it is a permanent policy, and, if funded correctly, will not lapse, unlike term insurance. This may give the insured more insurance flexibility in future years.
Tax Advantages
Because of its tax-deferred feature, the VUL may offer an attractive tax advantage, especially to those in higher tax brackets. If highly funded (though still non-MEC), the tax advantages may even offset the cost of insurance.
Education Planning
The cash value of a VUL can be used to help fund children's education, as long as the policy is started very early. Also, putting money into a VUL can be used to help children qualify for federal financial aid, since the federal government does not consider the cash value when calculating EFC (Expected Family Contribution).
Retirement Planning
Because of its tax-free policy loan feature, the VUL can also be used as tax-advantaged income source in retirement, assuming retirement is not in the near future and the policy is not a modified endowment contract. Again, the policy must be properly funded for this strategy to work.
Estate Planning
Those with a large estate can sometimes use a VUL as part of their estate planning strategy to reduce or avoid estate taxes by setting up ILIT.