This month's issue of The Wealth Counselor addresses a topic that many professionals do not understand fully, life settlements. For the right clients, a life settlement offers a significant advantage over the alternatives – and one that the client and the planning team should at least consider.
Life Settlements – The Basics
The secondary market for life insurance policies has entered the mainstream of financial services products. Therefore, advisors whose clients include seniors or aging baby boomers should have a working knowledge of how a life settlement can provide liquidity to meet a variety of estate planning and elder care needs.
A life settlement is a product for seniors (generally over the age of 70) who are seeking an economically sensible exit strategy from unwanted life insurance policies. A life settlement transaction involves the sale of an existing life insurance policy, typically valued at $250,000 or more, to an institutional investor (known as a "provider") in exchange for a lump-sum payment greater than the cash surrender value, but less than the death benefit. The institutional buyer becomes the new owner of the policy, assumes responsibility for premium payments, and collects the death benefit upon the insured's death.
Based on industry statistics, the average life settlement candidate is a 78 year-old male who owns a universal life insurance policy valued at $1.8 million, and the average lump sum payment typically ranges from 3 to 5 times the cash surrender value. In addition to universal life insurance policies, most other types of life insurance policies may qualify for a life settlement, including variable universal life (VUL); term policies (if convertible); whole life; survivorship; and group policies (if portable and convertible).
Life Settlements for VUL Policies Are Securities Transactions
Although universal life insurance policies comprise the bulk of life settlement transactions, VUL policies – particularly those with investments in subaccounts that have not performed according to market expectations – may be prime candidates for settlement in the secondary market. In August 2006, NASD issued Notice to Members 06-38 addressing member obligations with respect to the sale of existing VUL policies to third party investors operating in the secondary market for life insurance. This notice reminded us that, according to the NASD, the sale of a VUL policy is a securities transaction subject to applicable NASD rules.
Those elements of Notice 06-38 directly impacting the handling of VUL life settlement transactions concern:
- Establishing the client's suitability for the product;
- Conducting due diligence on the confidentiality practices of brokers and providers;
- Performing "best execution" by soliciting bids from multiple licensed providers;
- Establishing written procedures involving product training and supervision; and
- Prohibiting the payment of compensation on a transaction except by another member firm (broker-dealer).
Some broker-dealers have taken the position that although they will not proactively promote or advertise the product, they are putting procedures in place to make the option available to their registered reps in situations where a life settlement may be the most suitable solution for the client.
Life Settlements for Trust-Owned Life Insurance
As baby boomers prepare themselves for the great wealth transfer, financial advisors and legal professionals are poised to establish more trusts. According to the results of the sixth annual "Industry Attitudes" survey published in October 2006 by InvestmentNews, 70 percent of the financial advisors responding to the survey indicated that they expected to set up a greater number of trusts for their clients.
This statistic is important because life settlement industry statistics indicate that approximately 40 percent of life insurance policies sold in the secondary market involve trust-owned life insurance policies. For financial and legal professionals acting as trustees or fiduciaries for trust-owned life insurance policies, or for any professional whose clients have trust-owned life insurance, conducting periodic reviews of policy performance is highly recommended.
For example, policies purchased with the expectation that policy values or dividends would be available to pay future premiums may now require additional premium payments to maintain coverage. In some cases, the trust makers may choose a life settlement for the underperforming policy and then use the proceeds from the life settlement toward replacement coverage with a better-performing product.
Common Uses for Life Settlements
There are numerous reasons why seniors choose a life settlement, but some of the most common scenarios are: (1) the preferred alternative to a 1035 exchange; (2) the insured's estate tax burden has decreased and thus the insured no longer needs liquidity to pay estate taxes; (3) the insured wants cash to give to family or their favorite charity; (4) the insured can no longer afford the policy or plans to surrender it; (5) the policy is a key-person policy and no longer needed by a retiring executive; (6) the insured needs funds for medical or long-term care.
Within the past five years, the secondary market for unwanted life insurance policies has grown exponentially and is now estimated to be a $20 billion industry. Due to increased regulatory oversight and the infusion of institutional capital from investment banks such as Credit Suisse, Bear Stearns, Goldman Sachs, Deutsche Bank, and foreign and domestic hedge funds, this emerging industry is approaching a plateau of tenability and maturation.
Consider working with an experienced insurance professional to conduct periodic reviews of your clients' life insurance policies, and if suitable, recommend a life settlement.