September 27, 2023

Funding Education With Cash Value Life Insurance

The purpose of life insurance is to provide a sum of money (the death benefit) at the death of the insured. When you use life insurance as part of your college-funding plan, you can provide funding for your child’s college education in two ways. The first and perhaps obvious use is the death benefit, which can be used to pay for your child’s college education should you die prematurely. Statistically speaking, you probably will be alive to see your child through college, in which case you can still use life insurance as part of your education-funding plan. When you choose a cash value life insurance policy, you have a second way of reaching your college-funding goal. When you pay premiums on a cash value policy, some of your money is applied towards the policy cash value, making it sort of a savings account within the life insurance policy. Cash values accumulate and can be used during your lifetime via withdrawals and/or policy loans. This discussion assumes that you will live beyond the time your child enters college, and it will focus on the potential benefits of using cash value life insurance in your plan for funding your child’s college tuition.

When It Can Be Used

You have a need for insurance: Life insurance can be an important tool in your savings plan for your child’s college education. However, it is not appropriate that you buy life insurance solely for funding college tuition. You should only consider life insurance for this purpose when you also have a need for life insurance protection. Need is determined by several factors. If you work and produce an income that your family depends on, there is likely an insurance need. Even if you don’t work outside the home but are responsible for the care of your children, there may be an insurance need. The worksheet How Much Insurance Do You Need? will give you a guideline to help you and your financial planner determine appropriate levels of life insurance coverage. If you already have insurance, review your existing coverage every few years. Changes in your life (such as salary increases, marriage or divorce, the birth or adoption of a child, or purchase of a residence) may indicate a need for a change in coverage.

You have a long time before tuition funds are needed: Insurance companies often charge the policy expenses such as fees and commissions in the earlier years of the policy. Because of this expense front-loading, several years could pass before your policy cash values begin to accumulate to sizable amounts. It is generally recommended that cash value insurance be considered for purchase when you intend to hold it for a long period of time, usually at least 10 or 15 years. Be sure to check your existing policies. If you already have life insurance with cash values (remember that policy you bought 10 years ago?), you may have a head start on your funding plan for your child’s college education.


Your family is provided with life insurance protection: Unlike other investments or a savings account, life insurance provides your family with a death benefit (i.e., a sum of cash paid after your death). Generally, the amount of the death benefit is significantly larger than the total premiums paid for the policy. If you should die before your child enters college, tuition can be paid from the policy death benefit. Should you live (which is much more likely), you can use policy cash values to pay for some or all of your child’s tuition. Your family still receives the benefit of life insurance as long as the policy remains in force.

Policy cash values grow tax deferred: The portion of your premium payment that is applied to cash value is invested either by the insurance company or at your direction, depending on the type of policy. Positive investment returns increase the cash value. You are not subject to taxes on the growth in cash value until you withdraw the cash values or cancel (surrender) the policy. It is possible that you may be able to withdraw cash values and not be subject to income tax on the withdrawal. For more information, see the section on tax implications.

Diverse investment choices are available for cash values: The cash values in your life insurance policy are invested in investment vehicles that traditionally have the potential to earn higher returns than an ordinary savings account at a bank. The investment options (normally called subaccounts) usually include bonds or stocks. You can buy a life insurance policy that lets you select the specific investments, or you can leave the investment choices up to the professional investment managers with the insurance company. In either case, you have the potential for higher returns (but also greater potential for loss) than if you made deposits to a traditional passbook savings account. Read the fine print concerning the underlying investments for the insurance policy you are interested in. Shop around until you find a policy with cash value investments you are comfortable with. Variable life and variable universal life insurance policies are offered by prospectus, which you can obtain from your financial professional or the insurance company. The prospectus contains detailed information about investment objectives, risks, charges, and expenses. You should read the prospectus and consider this information carefully before purchasing a variable life or variable universal life insurance policy.

Cash values can be withdrawn:When the time to pay college tuition arrives (or you need the money for any other purpose), you might withdraw some or all of the cash value from your policy, much like a withdrawal from a bank account. The amount you can withdraw is generally limited to a percentage of the cash value and varies by policy and company. You may be able to withdraw from your cash values and still keep your insurance in effect to provide a death benefit at your death. It’s a good idea to leave enough cash value in the policy to maintain the policy and cover the policy fees. Cash value withdrawals may reduce the death benefit.

Cash values can be borrowed against using a policy loan: Policy loans are allowed under the terms of your insurance contract and are not affected by your current financial position. In other words, you don’t have to undergo a credit check or a bank loan approval process for a policy loan. When you take a policy loan, the check you receive comes out of the general funds of the insurance company, not your cash value. Your policy cash value serves as the loan collateral. The interest rate for a policy loan is known in advance and may be lower than that on a bank loan. Some policies allow borrowings at an interest rate only slightly higher than the rate being credited to cash values. With some policies, the loan interest rate charged equals the rate credited to cash values, for a zero net cost loan. If either your dividends or the increases in cash value are reduced, this is also part of your cost to borrow. If you die with an outstanding policy loan against your account, your death benefit is reduced by the amount of the outstanding loan balance. Interest accrues on the unpaid loan balance. If you choose not to repay the loan, the accruing interest could erode your cash values and result in a policy lapse with some types of policy.

You can combine withdrawals with policy loans: Cash value withdrawals and policy loans are not exclusive events. You can use a combination of withdrawals and loans to maximize the tax-free cash withdrawal benefits. You might choose to make cash value withdrawals up to the amount of your policy basis and then take a policy loan. In insurance terms, this is referred to as “surrender to basis and switch to loan.”

Example: Let’s say you have a son you are putting through college. You own a cash value policy that you bought just after he was born, and you are considering accessing your cash values to pay this year’s tuition. The first thing you might do is to make a tax-free withdrawal of cash value from the policy equivalent to the amount of premiums you have paid into the policy. After you withdraw to your basis, you take a policy loan.

Insurance policy can be gifted to your child: As the owner of a life insurance policy, you may be able to transfer ownership to someone else by gift. As part of your overall financial and estate planning, you may choose to gift the policy to your child. To attain the maximum allowable tax benefit from your policy, you may want to withdraw cash value equivalent to your basis in the policy before you make the gift.

Example: Let’s say you have a daughter you are putting through college. You own a cash value policy that you bought when she was very young. She doesn’t have an income because her “job” at present is that of an unpaid archaeologist working on a project in France. You are considering making a gift of your cash value insurance policy to your daughter. Before you make the gift, you may be able to make a tax-free withdrawal of cash value from the policy equivalent to the amount of premiums you have paid into the policy. In insurance terms, this is referred to as a withdrawal to basis. After you complete the withdrawal to basis, you gift the policy to your daughter. As the new owner, she can now withdraw from the cash value. Her withdrawals will be taxed at her income tax rate, which presently is considerably lower than your rate. Another option is for her to take a policy loan against the remaining cash value. Depending on the amount of the cash value gifted, part of it may be considered a taxable gift. Also, you may need to continue the gift with additional gifts of the premiums in order to keep the policy in force. Otherwise, your low-income college student may not be able to make the premium payments, and the policy could lapse.

Life insurance values are not included in federal methodology for financial aid: Under the federal financial aid formula, assets are grouped into two categories: assessable and nonassessable. Life insurance policies fall into the nonassessable category. In other words, the value of your cash value life insurance is not counted as income or assets in the financial need calculation. The amount of federal financial aid your child is eligible for is not reduced because you have life insurance containing cash value. Although life insurance values are not included in the federal methodology, many colleges and universities do look at these values when assessing financial need and assistance at the school level.


You must be insurable: In order to get life insurance, you must be considered insurable by an insurance company. Insurability can be affected by such factors as medical history, age, or participation in dangerous hobbies such as auto racing. Life insurance is not available to people in extremely poor health, although few people are actually refused insurance. Even if you have a history of health problems, you may still be able to buy a rated policy. The premiums are higher than for a preferred policy (whose favorable premiums reflect the fact that the applicant is less likely to die than a standard applicant), but your need for insurance protection may make it worth the expense.

Premiums represent financial obligation: Once you buy a life insurance policy, there is often an ongoing expense: the premiums. In the early years of the policy, the premiums represent a contractual obligation. Obviously, when you pay premiums, you have less cash available for other purposes. In the later years of the policy, you may be able to reduce the amount of premiums you pay. This depends on the type of policy, so check out the details of your policy. With some policies, you can reduce your death benefit when your need for insurance is reduced (e.g., when your child has completed college). The death benefit reduction would be accompanied by a reduction in your premiums. Check the policy for details.

Amount of insurance must be justifiable: When you buy life insurance, you purchase a policy with a stated death benefit, also called the face amount. An appropriate death benefit is calculated beginning with your current income and your economic life (i.e., what you can be expected to earn during your working lifetime). There are several ways to calculate a life insurance need, but in the end, the death benefit must be justifiable in order to satisfy the insurance company’s financial underwriting process. As a result of this death benefit limitation, your cash value potential is also limited. For instance, a 30-year-old person with an income of $30,000 would not be eligible to buy the same amount of insurance as a 50-year-old person with an income of $1 million.

Your cash value contributions may be limited: Because life insurance contracts receive favorable income tax treatment, the government has restricted the amount of money that can be paid into policies that are treated as life insurance contracts for tax purposes. There are specific rules that define a life insurance contract for tax purposes. These rules limit the amount of cash you can put into a policy that is treated as a life insurance contract.

There may be a death benefit restriction: If the cash value in a policy is too high relative to the policy death benefit, cash value increases will be taxed instead of being allowed to grow tax deferred. The excess cash value must be distributed to you. The cash value might become too high relative to the death benefit if the underlying investment experiences high returns or if the death benefit is reduced. In addition, the size of the policy you are eligible to buy is limited by your age and income under the financial underwriting requirement that the amount of insurance be justifiable.

You may be subject to modified endowment contract (MEC) rules: The modified endowment contract (MEC) rules were established to prevent people from using life insurance policies as tax-free investments for large sums of money. The MEC rules limit the amounts you can pay into a policy during the first seven years of the policy’s life. If you exceed the limits, the policy is permanently classified as a MEC and is subject to special tax rules. Under these rules, policy loans are generally taxable, and withdrawals are not only taxable but may also be subject to a 10 percent penalty tax.

Underlying investments subject to fees, potential losses: The underlying investments in a cash value policy may be subject to losses, depending on the performance of the investment and the markets. Just as investment gains are added to your cash value, losses may be deducted, depending on the specific policy. Investments are also subject to management and administrative fees. Read your contract and prospectus concerning the underlying investments and any associated fees before you choose a policy.

Factors to Consider when Choosing a Policy

When planning for college expenses, parents are often concerned with four areas: tax benefits, financial aid, control issues, and investment costs. Generally, all types of cash value life insurance will provide you with the same benefits in the areas of tax benefits and financial aid. The major difference between various policy types occurs in the areas of control and costs. The following types of life insurance all contain cash value and may be used for funding your child’s college education.

  • Whole life
  • Variable life
  • Universal life
  • Variable universal life

Tax Benefits

The following tax characteristics are common to all types of cash value life insurance.

  • Cash value grows tax deferred
  • Cash value withdrawals to basis are not taxable
  • Death benefit is generally received by beneficiary free from income tax

Financial Aid

Some assets, like cash value life insurance, may be treated differently depending on who is doing the financial analysis, the government or a college.

  • Federal financial aid methodology doesn’t include policy cash values in parents’ total assets when determining a child’s financial need
  • Individual colleges may consider policy cash values when determining a child’s financial need

Control Issues

In all cases, when you own a cash value life insurance policy, you control the policy. You can decide if withdrawals are to be taken when allowed under your policy or if you want to take a policy loan. You choose the policy beneficiary who will receive the death benefit when you die. However, between the various types of cash value policies, there are differing levels of control over the cash value investments and premium payments. These may be key factors in choosing the appropriate life insurance type for saving for your child’s college education while also protecting your family’s income at your death.

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