Benefits and drawbacks to buying Indexed Universal Life Insurance

Today, I am going off the beaten path for me and will discuss the pros and cons of buying Indexed Universal Life Insurance. As a fee-only advisor, I do not sell any insurance or commission-based products. However, on numerous occasions, I have received requests from clients to review their existing insurance coverage. I certainly do not know every IUL product out there. And I might be missing some of the nuances and differences between them. My observation is that IUL is not suitable for the average person due to its complexity and high cost. And yet, the IUL might be the right product for you if you can take advantage of the benefits that it offers. 

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What is an Indexed Universal Life Insurance (IUL)?

Indexed Universal Life is a popular insurance product that promises protection coverage with stock market-like performance and a zero-downside risk. Like other universal life insurance, IUL offers a death benefit and a cash value. Your cash value account can earn interest based on the performance of a specific stock market index such as the S&P 500, Dow Jones Industrial Average, the Nasdaq 100, and Russell 2000.

IUL Illustration rate

IUL policies use an illustration rate for advertising and hypothetically projecting the policy values in their sales materials. The Illustration rate is the fixed rate derived from historical performance. Usually, the illustration rate ranges between 5% and 10%.

Is IUL right for me?

On the surface, Indexed Universal Life Insurance sounds like a great deal. You receive a stock market upside with zero risks for losses. Nevertheless, IUL comes with some severe caveats.

Let’s break down the main benefits and drawbacks of IUL.

 Benefits of Indexed Universal Life Insurance

Tax-Deferred Accumulation

Index Universal Life Insurance allows you to grow your policy cash value and death benefit on a tax-deferred basis. Typically, you will not owe income taxes on the interest credited to your cash value and death benefit.

Tax-Free Distribution

Life Insurance, in general, is a lucrative tool for legacy planning. With IUL, your policy beneficiaries will receive the death benefit tax-free. As long as you maintain your insurance premiums and don’t take outsized loans, you can pass tax-free wealth to the next generation.

Access to a cash value

You can always withdraw your policy basis (original premiums paid) tax-free. In most cases, you can also access your cash value through tax-favorable policy loans or withdrawals. In case of emergency, you may borrow from your indexed universal life insurance policy. You can access your cash value without any penalty regardless of your age.

Supplemental Retirement Income

You can use the cash value from your policy as a source of supplemental retirement income.  You can also use it to cover future medical expenses.

Limited downside risk

IUL offers protection against stock market volatility. An IUL delivers stock market-linked gains without the risks of losing principal due to the stock market declines. With the IUL’s principal-protection guarantee, your annual gains are locked in. Your principal cash value remains the same, even if the stock market goes down.

A guaranteed minimum rate

Many IUL policies come with a guaranteed minimum annual interest rate. This rate is a floor of how much you can earn every year. The guaranteed allows you to receive a certain percentage regardless of how the market performs. This floor rate depends on the specific insurance, and it could vary between 0% and 2%.

Drawbacks of Indexed Universal Life Insurance

IUL is complex

IUL is an extremely complex insurance product. There are many moving parts in your UIL policy, making it confusing and hard to understand. Most sales illustration packages portray an ideal scenario with non-guaranteed average market performance figures. In reality, between your annual premiums, cap rates, floors, fees, market returns, cash value accumulation, riders, and so on, it is tough to predict the outcome of your insurance benefits.

Upfront Commissions

The people who sell IUL are highly trained sales professionals who may not be qualified to provide fiduciary financial advice. The IUL comes with a hefty upfront commission, which is often buried in the fine print and gets subtracted from your first premium payment.

IUL has high fees

The policy fees will shock you and eat your lunch literally. I have personally seen charges in the neighborhood of 11% to 13% annually. These fees will always reduce the benefits of your annual premium and earned interest.

Limited earnings potential

IUL policies will typically limit your stock market returns and will exclude all dividends. Most IULs offer some combination of participation rate and capped rate in comparison to the illustration rate used in their marketing materials.

Participation Rate is the percentage of positive index movement credited to the policy. For example, if the S&P 500 increased 10% and the IUL has an annual participation rate of 50%, your policy would receive 5% interest on the anniversary date.

Cap Rate is the maximum rate that you can earn annually. The cap rate can vary significantly from policy to policy and from insurance provider to the next.

 Why capped upside is an issue?

The problem with cap rates and participation rates is they limit your gains during, especially good years. Historically, the stock market returns are not linear and sequential, as the policy illustration rates suggest. In the 40 years between 1980 and 2019, the stock market earned an average of 11.27% per year. During this period, there were only eight years when the stock market had negative returns or 20% of that period. There were only seven years when the stock market posted returns between 0% and 10%. And there were 25 years when the stock market earned more than 10% per year. In 17 of those 25 periods, the stock market investors gained more than 20% or 42% of the time.

In other words, historically, the odds of outsized gains have been a lot higher than the odds of losses.

However, as humans, the pain of losing money is a lot stronger than the joy of gaining.

In effect, long-term IUL policyholders will give up the potential of earning these outsized profits to reduce their anxiety and stress of losing money.

Surrender charges

IULs have hefty surrender charges. If you change your mind in a couple of years and decide to cancel your policy, you may not be able to receive the full cash value. Before you get into a contract, please find out the surrender charges and when they expire.

Expensive Riders

Indexed Universal Life Insurance typically offers riders. The policy riders are contract add-ons that provide particular benefits in exchange for an additional fee. These provisions can include long-term care services, disability waivers, enhanced performance, children’s’ term insurance, no-lapse guarantee, and many more. The extra fee for each rider will reduce your cash value, similar to the regular policy fees. You need to assess each rider individually as the cumulative cost may outweigh your benefit and vice versa,

Cash value withdrawals reduce your death benefit

In most cases, you might be able to make a tax-free withdrawal from the cash value of your IUL policy. These withdrawals are often treated as loans. However, legacy-minded policyholders need to remember that withdrawing your cash value reduces your beneficiaries’ death benefit when you pass away.

Potential taxable income

There is still a chance to pay taxes on your IUL policy. If you let your policy lapse or decide to surrender it, the money you have withdrawn previously could be taxable. Withdrawals are treated as taxable when they exceed your original cost basis or paid premiums.

About Stoyan Panayotov

I am a fee-only financial advisor and the founder of Babylon Wealth Management. As fiduciary advisors, we provide bespoke wealth management and personalized financial planning to busy families in the Bay Area and nationally. Many of our clients are tech workers, physicians, business owners, professionals preparing for retirement and young families looking to build financial independence.

I started Babylon Wealth Management to help young families and successful professionals build, grow and preserve their wealth. Being a fee-only financial advisor, I never earn sales commissions or sell investment products. Furthermore, I am committed to acting in my clients’ best interest by providing trusted advice and bespoke wealth management solutions. I enjoy helping clients develop robust and personalized long-term financial plans to achieve their personal and financial goals.

After completing a bachelor’s degree in Accounting at Varna University of Economics in Bulgaria, at the age of 23, I moved to New York City to pursue a Master of Business Administration at Pace University. I was fortunate enough to have a full merit-based scholarship and finished graduate school with no student loans. Upon completing grad school, I joined the ranks on Wall Street for nearly two years. I specialized in risk management and option strategies for equity and fixed income products for Deutsche Bank and Wells Fargo. In 2006 I obtained a highly recognized CFA designation.

Living in New York without family support was a life-changing experience for me. II arrived at JFK Airport on August 24, 2002. I stayed in a hostel for two weeks and later moved in with three of my fellow Bulgarian students into a one-bedroom apartment in the Bronx. There was a time in life when all I owned was $200, just enough to pay for the next month’s rent. Many times, I contemplated returning to Bulgaria, but somehow, I always pushed through life’s adversities. I’ve learned to appreciate each moment, big or small, that life presents. These challenges have helped me develop strength and flexibility, which supports my practice as a financial advisor.

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