Borrowing From a Life Insurance Policy

Is it a good or bad idea?

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Traditional life insurance was originally developed to provide beneficiary death benefits in the event of the insured person's death. However, several products evolved in the latter part of the 20th century that also incorporated a type of savings or investment component to the policy.

Some insurance salespeople tout the benefits of life insurance with investment components. Benefits include being able to borrow money from the cash value of the policy after you've paid premiums. Two examples of life insurance policies that provide cash values are whole life insurance and universal life insurance. Check your life insurance policy to see if it includes a loan provision.

Being able to use your policy if you need an emergency loan sounds great, but it pays to understand all of the pros and cons of policy loans beforehand so that you don't put your policy and paid premiums at risk.

Can You Borrow Money From Term Life Insurance Policies?

You can typically borrow or take cash from your life insurance policy after you have built up the cash value. You will have to contact your financial planner, advisor, or insurance representative to determine your policy's cash value. Discuss what the impact will be on your policy as well as potential tax implications.

Inexpensive life insurance policies such as term life insurance don't build any cash value, so they don't allow you to borrow money from the policy. Part of the reason term life insurance is considered affordable is that it is a pure life insurance policy. Term life has no value other than the actual death benefit paid upon the death of the insured—if the insured dies within the fixed term.

Before You Borrow

If you have the option of borrowing from your life insurance policy, you probably own a policy that offers cash value and uses this feature as part of your strategy in deciding what kind of life insurance best suits your needs.

The first thing you need to do if you are considering borrowing money or withdrawing funds from your life insurance is to decide if it makes sense in your circumstance.

Ask your agent or representative to run an "in-force illustration," which will show you how taking a loan impacts your policy. Also, explore other options and weigh the pros and cons of borrowing from your policy.

Before you move forward on a policy loan, have a serious discussion with your financial planner or insurance advisor to understand the long-term and short-term consequences and risks. You may not initially realize there are many hidden costs, so it's important to make sure this is the best option for you. 

  1. Discuss how the loan and interest will impact your policy and ensure that the death benefit portion is not threatened.
  2. Find out if you will have to pay an "opportunity cost."
  3. Make sure you can afford to pay the loan interest and other fees or figure out the strategy based on the specific policy that makes sense for you. Not all policies are the same, and everyone's circumstance is different. Interest costs could be compounded, so you could be paying interest on your interest.
  4. If you don't pay back the interest on your loan, think twice.
  5. If you rely on the policy dividends to pay the loan interest, have a real look at the details with your representative or financial advisor. Borrowing the policy's cash value reduces the amount of available collateral for the loan. It also reduces dividends and generates less money to cover interest payments. This reduction can be costly if not structured properly and could cause you to lose your policy.

All of these issues should come up when you look at the in-force illustration of the impact of your loan with your agent or advisor. 

How Borrowing From a Life Insurance Policy Works

One of the greatest differences between policy loans and traditional loans is that you don't have to pay back the loan to your insurance policy. When you borrow based on your life insurance policy's cash value, you are borrowing money from the life insurance company.

When you need cash for an emergency or a big expense such as college tuition, a loan from your life insurance policy can be a saving grace, offering you advantages over credit card debt or personal loans from a bank. A loan from your insurance company is a lot easier to get than a bank loan because it uses the cash value of your policy as collateral.

On the flip side, this option doesn't come without risks. If you do not pay back the loan, they will take it from the cash value of your policy or deduct it when the death benefit is paid out.

One of the main problems with this is that if the loan is not paid back, and you don't pay the interest either, then the interest will compound and be added to your loan balance, which may end up exceeding the policy's cash value over time.

Borrowing from your life insurance policy requires cautious planning and monitoring of your loan balance and cash value, or you might risk losing your policy. This planning is where an in-force illustration will come in handy.

Do You Have to Pay Back the Loan?

Unlike bank loans or mortgages, you do not have to pay back the loan you take when borrowing from a permanent life insurance policy. However, when you borrow the money based on your cash value, the amount you borrow may reduce the death benefit from your policy's life insurance portion. If you do not pay the loan back and the interest combined with the amount borrowed starts to exceed the cash value, you could put your life insurance policy at risk. This policy risk can happen more quickly than you think.

Reasons to Borrow From a Life Insurance Policy vs. the Bank

While policy loans don't make sense for every situation, you'll have a few advantages if you take a loan from your permanent life insurance rather than from a traditional lender.

Some people buy cash-value life insurance specifically to build assets so that later on in life, they can borrow from their insurance policy or use the investments when they need to. Other people borrow from their life insurance policy to avoid the hassle of a bank loan. If you intend to repay the loan in a reasonable amount of time and keep up with the interest payments—so they do not accumulate—this could be a hassle-free option.

Borrowing from your life insurance policy allows a lot more flexibility in repayment. For example, when you borrow from a bank, you have monthly payments to make over a fixed term, whereas if you borrow from your life insurance policy, you can pay back as little or as much as you want at any time interval. Again, you have to be careful how this impacts the value of your loan versus your cash value as interest accumulates, but if you only need a loan for a brief time, this can help you borrow money and pay it back on your terms

If the amount you are borrowing is significantly less than your cash value and you have plans and the means to pay back the interest and value in a reasonable amount of time, then borrowing from your policy may be a good option. Your life insurance agent can help you figure this out.

You can borrow from a cash-value permanent policy, but before you do, make sure you are prepared to manage the transaction properly by having a thorough discussion with your planner.

Examples of Borrowing From a Life Insurance Policy

Jane had been paying into her whole life insurance policy since she was 22. On her 40th birthday, she decided that she wanted to buy herself the sailboat of her dreams.

She was still paying off her home and didn't want to take out an additional loan, so she decided to use some of her savings, and borrow the remaining $20,000 she needed from the cash value of her life insurance policy.

When she called to get the loan and discussed the consequences with her financial advisor, she found out that she could borrow the money, but that the amount might reduce the amount of her death benefit. This reduction would mean that if something happened to her, and she died, her family would only get the death benefit less whatever amount of the loan she didn't pay.

That didn't bother her so much, but then her financial advisor explained that even though she didn't have to pay back the loan, she could end up paying interest and compounded interest. When they worked out the details, Jane decided the loan for the sailboat probably wasn't the best use of her accumulated cash value. She decided to rent a boat instead and not risk paying all the fees and compound interest or risk her policy long term.

Jane decided to pass on the boat and chose instead to take money from her life insurance policy to start her own business. She had never run a business before and was worried about borrowing from the bank. She also didn't want to have another loan on her credit report. Because Jane had already done some market research and had some demand for her services already, she thought she could manage to pay back her life insurance loan within two years. Borrowing the money was an investment in herself, and the future business made sense, so she took out the loan.

The Bottom Line

Borrowing from your life insurance policy could be a problem if you borrow the funds because you have hard financial times. In some states, the cash value in your life policy is protected from creditors. Still, any loan taken from your life insurance policy is considered cash, and this money would no longer be protected from debt collectors if it's in your bank account. The last thing you need is to take out a loan without having the big picture. What is most important for you to keep in mind is that this is not the same as pulling money out of a savings account; it's a complex transaction, and you need to make sure you understand all aspects of it.