In recent years, the IRS has identified many of these arrangements as abusive devices to funnel tax deductible dollars to shareholders and classified these arrangements as “listed transactions.”
These plans were sold by insurance agents, financial planners, accountants and attorneys seeking large life insurance commissions. In general, taxpayers who engage in a “listed transaction” must report such transaction to the IRS on Form 8886 every year that they “participate” in the transaction, and you do not necessarily have to make a contribution or claim a tax deduction to participate. Section 6707A of the Code imposes severe penalties ($200,000 for a business and $100,000 for an individual) for failure to file Form 8886 with respect to a listed transaction.But you are also in trouble if you file incorrectly.I have received numerous phone calls from business owners who filed and still got fined. Not only do you have to file Form 8886, but it has to be prepared correctly. I only know of two people in the United States who have filed these forms properly for clients. They tell me that was after hundreds of hours of research and over fifty phones calls to various IRS personnel.
There is no doubt that while the public doesn’t really think much about buying life insurance, they have a need for it. Life insurance serves the purpose of funding the family’s continuation at death, and prevents the financial shock from the loss of the family’s main provider.
Life insurance is also sold as a tax shelter of sorts. Because the investment growth on the cash value of a life insurance policy is not taxed, and in fact may never be taxed, life insurance can sometimes be a very efficient investment. (And sometimes not — eventually, the cost of insurance which increases dramatically with age can significantly eat away at investment returns, and more often than not the investment returns somehow never quite match the pollyannaish predictions of the illustrations shown to prospective buyers — those illustrations with unrealistic financial projections being known in the industry as “liar ledgers”).
The problem with life insurance as a tax shelter is that typically it must be purchased with post-tax dollars. Historical attempts by creative attorneys and financial advisers to manipulate various tax-free strategies to encompass a life insurance policy have nearly all ended in disaster: VEBAs, 412(i) plans, and 419 plans all ended with the taxpayers often paying more tax in the end than if they had done nothing in the first place, and lawsuits against advisers for professional negligence nearly hit the epidemic point.
For somewhat obvious reasons, the IRS has typically gone after arrangements that were pitched to clients that they could purchase a large amount of life insurance with pre-tax dollars like a heat-seeking missile. Yet, advisers persist in trying to wed life insurance to things that it shouldn’t be hitched to, so as to obtain the result of a pre-tax purchase of life insurance — and big commissions to the advisers, who if in good with their insurance company, might make upwards of 40% of the first-year’s premiums paid in on a Universal Life policy, and upwards of 80% on a Whole Life policy (they almost never disclose these commissions to their clients, of course).
The latest attempt to wed life insurance to something that will result in a pre-tax purchase of life insurance is that involving smallish captive insurance companies. These companies make the 831(b) election so that they are not taxed on their premium income, with the result that the underlying company can quite lawfully pay some reasonable amount of premiums to the captive and take a current-year deduction for it, but the captive does not pick up the premiums received as income.
From a tax standpoint, the benefits of an 831(b) captive are not that great — most of the money should be used to pay claims if the actuarial calculations of the premiums are anything like close, and then the balance of the money is subject to capital gains taxes when the company is liquidated. In the meantime, an 831(b) captive is not allowed to deduct all, or even most, of its operating costs.
Plus — and here is where life insurance re-enters the picture — an 831(b) captive is internally taxed annually on its investment income, which further eats into the tax efficiency of the captive. But what if the captive could purchase life insurance — which grows tax-free — and thus avoid the tax on its investment income? Welcome to the life insurance tax shelter du jour.
There are now tax shelter promoters out there (many of them the same ones who sold VEBAs, 412(i), and 419A(f)(6) plans in past years) actively marketing and selling 831(b) companies as a conduit to purchase life insurance with pre-tax dollars. Sometimes they try to disguise the transaction by having the captive do a split-dollar transfer to a trust that buys the life insurance, or having the captive invest in a preferred share of an LLC that buys the life insurance. This is just putting lipstick on the pig. Others just tell their clients to purchase life insurance directly inside the captive.
The truth is that it is probably fine for a mature captive, meaning one that has been around for some years and has large reserves and surplus, to use a small amount of its investable assets to purchase a key-man policy, or maybe invest in life settlements or the like.
But this is not how the 831(b) captives are being sold; instead, clients are being shown illustrations where the life insurance is being purchased soon after the first premiums are paid to the captive (the advisers want their commissions now, not later), and the efficiency of the captive is being measured not in its effectiveness as a risk-management tool (it’s proper purpose) but rather as an investment and estate planning tool (the improper tax shelter purpose).
In reviewing these transactions, the presence of the 831(b) captive is simply a sham. Premiums in these deals are rarely calculated based on anything like real-world risks, but the promoters are making a determination of how big of a deduction the client wants, and then “backing in” the premium amounts with the help of actuaries who will testify that a $500,000 premium for $2 million worth of terrorism insurance for a business in Lenexa, Kansas, is reasonable, and, oh, also that the world is flat, water is dry, hot is cold, and the sun comes up in the West.