As property, policyowners can transfer their life insurance contracts to other persons or entities. A policyowner can transfer either all or only some of the “bundle of rights” that comprises a life insurance policy to almost any person or entity.
The two basic ways of making a lifetime transfer of a policy are: (1) the absolute assignment; and (2) the collateral assignment. An absolute assignment, as its name implies, transfers all the policyowner’s rights irrevocably. A collateral assignment, again as its name implies, assigns so much of the death benefit as necessary for as long as necessary to secure a lender’s rights. But no more of the proceeds will go to the lender than the amount of debt owed.
The assignment does not have to be of any particular form (absent specific provisions in state law or the contract to the contrary). Because life insurance is treated as personal property, policyowner may transfer ownership rights, not only by many different types of documents, but also by many different actions. For example, if a person sells a business and the business owns a life insurance policy, the sale of all the assets of the business carries with it the personal property the business owned – including the life insurance.
Likewise, a property settlement in connection with a divorce may have the effect of transferring the ownership of life insurance on the life of one or the other (or both) spouse(s) even though no one ever uses the word “assignment” with regard to these transfers. But this type of transfer (where a clause in the divorce decree disposes of life insurance) is both very dangerous and very awkward. If a policyowner names his new spouse as beneficiary of the insurance proceeds and the insurer has no notice or knowledge of the divorce decree’s change, both spouses are likely to claim the proceeds. Furthermore, if the decree requires the policyowner spouse to maintain the policy for the benefit of his or her ex-spouse, the policyowner cannot obtain a policy loan-even to keep the policy in force through a premium loan.
Before either the absolute or collateral type of assignment or any other instance of a policy ownership transfer is valid, the policyowner must notify the insurer (and, where required by the terms of the contract, the insurer must consent to the assignment). Once notified in writing at the insurer’s home office, the insurer must honor the policyowner’s transfer—unless the terms of the contract itself forbid assignments. So if the insurer then disregards (by intention or neglect) the assignee’s rights and makes payment to someone else, the courts may force the insurer to make a second payment to the assignee. If the policyowner gives no notice to the insurer, it will be protected in a transaction initiated by a former owner. For instance, if the former owner applies for a policy loan and he has not given the insurer proper notice that he had assigned the policy, the insurer is protected in making that loan.
The insurer does not, however, have to verify the bona fides of the transaction between the policyowner and the transferee nor the validity of the transaction. In other words, the insurer is not accountable for the mental or legal capacity of the policyowner to make the assignment (unless it had knowledge that the policyowner was not legally competent to make it or there were irregularities in the assignment form).
Policyowners use an absolute assignment in life insurance planning when the policyowner wants to sell or give away all of his or her rights under the contract. The goal might be to obtain valuable consideration, to save estate taxes, avoid creditors, or purely for love and affection and to assure the transferee of financial security. There are many common examples of sales and gifts:
- A client might sell a policy on his life to his business.
- A business might sell a policy on an employee’s life to the employee or to the employee’s spouse or child or trust (or to a pension plan).
- A shareholder might sell a policy on his life to a new business associate.
- A client might give a policy on her life to her spouse.
- A client might give a policy on his life to his children or to a family trust.
Both sales and gift transactions have important and sometimes unexpectedly expensive tax implications. Planners should thoroughly research before allowing any sale of a life insurance policy. Also, understand what should be considered before allowing a client to make a gift of a policy. A valid gift requires that the donor have contractual capacity and intent to make a voluntary gratuitous transfer and the gift must be delivered to and accepted by the donee (assignee).
Planners must be aware of the nontax implications of an absolute assignment in order to avoid them and/or alert the client to their potential effect. Some of these are:
Although an absolute assignment itself may not per se change the interest of a revocable beneficiary, as a practical matter the new owner can immediately change the beneficiary and often makes that change almost simultaneously with the assignment. Some absolute assignment forms state that the new owner is automatically the primary policy beneficiary until the new owner makes a change to the beneficiary designation.
If the policyowner made an irrevocable beneficiary designation before making an absolute assignment of the policy, in most states the assignment will not defeat that designation (without the written consent of the beneficiary) and the transferee should be apprised of this fact.
Absolute assignments may put the policy and its proceeds beyond the claims of the policyowner’s creditors, but planners should inform policyowner that—like diamonds—an absolute assignment is forever. There is a loss of both control and flexibility from the transferor’s viewpoint.
Reproduced with permission. Copyright The National Underwriter Co. Division of ALM