What Is an Accelerated Death Benefit?

Learn how to tap life insurance benefits before you die

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An accelerated death benefit (ADB)—also referred to as a living benefit—is a feature of a life insurance policy that pays a percentage of the death benefit early (up to the full benefit in some cases) if qualifying conditions are met. If you have a life insurance policy that includes one, you can potentially obtain a portion of the death benefit before you die to pay your medical and other expenses, or to use however you want.

Whether you’re shopping for a new life insurance policy, or seeking to get the most out of an existing one, learn how an accelerated death benefit works, when you might use one, and how it impacts the policy.

What Is an Accelerated Death Benefit?

Being diagnosed with or living with a serious illness can, at best, be difficult. An accelerated death benefit feature on a life insurance policy gives you the option to access some of the death benefit “early,” if you qualify. 

Depending on policy specifics, that could be if you become terminally ill, chronically ill, critically ill, require long-term care, or experience any of these conditions. (This might be the case if the policy contains multiple riders or one rider covers multiple events.) Benefits eligibility and limits vary by insurer and by state.

One or more ADBs may be included as standard policy features or available as optional riders, some at additional cost, on both permanent and term life insurance policies. ADBs are most typically available on new policies only. They are not considered a form of insurance themselves, but function as an acceleration of the death benefit if exercised.

  • Alternative names: Living benefits rider, accelerated living benefits rider, chronic illness rider, terminal illness rider, critical illness rider, long-term care (LTC) rider
  • Acronym: ADB, ABR (accelerated benefit rider)

How an Accelerated Death Benefit Works

Life insurance policies with living benefit riders pay you—as prepayment of the death benefit—while you’re alive if you develop an eligible condition. You may only be able to purchase riders at policy issue, or less commonly, may be able to add them at a later date. For example, you might choose to purchase a terminal illness rider that requires a diagnosis of 24 or fewer months to live, as opposed to settling for the standard feature that requires a six-month diagnosis to accelerate the death benefit.

When an ADB is exercised—meaning activated—the insurer pays the funds out of the policy’s death benefit, and when the insured dies, the beneficiary receives what’s left.

The death benefit may be reduced by an amount greater than the ADB amount paid to account for the early payment and any service fee charged for exercising the rider.

ADBs can pay a percentage of the policy’s death benefit, generally ranging from 25% to 100%, in one lump sum or as an ongoing monthly benefit. For instance, a terminal illness ADB might provide a one-time payment of 75% of the death benefit, while an LTC rider could provide a monthly benefit but limit the total benefit paid to a specific dollar amount. 

ADBs can also limit the amount of money paid for certain types of care: An LTC rider might pay up to 2% of the death benefit per month for nursing home care, for example, but only 1% per month for home health care.

Tax and Other Considerations

Receiving funds from an ADB can impact your eligibility for Medicaid or other public assistance services. And benefits—though intended to qualify as a “death benefit” under IRS code (and therefore not be taxable)—may or may not have federal and state tax consequences. This depends in part on certain factors, including your life expectancy, the amount of “qualified” expenses you’ve incurred (such as qualified long-term care expenses), and the amount of benefits received.

Because federal and state tax laws are subject to change, and tax laws related to accelerated benefits are complex, consult a tax advisor before exercising benefits. 

What Accelerated Death Benefits Cover

Benefit limits and the circumstances in which you can access the features of an ADB vary. But generally, accelerated death benefits can be broken down into four categories with typical triggering events:

Type of Benefit Triggering Event Type of Payment
Chronic illness You’re diagnosed with a chronic illness that is considered non-recoverable. (You’re unable to perform at least two activities of daily living, like bathing, dressing, and feeding yourself, or suffer severe cognitive impairment and require substantial supervision.) Lump-sum payment
Long-term care You’re unable to perform at least two activities of daily living, like bathing, dressing, and feeding yourself, or suffer from severe cognitive impairment.

You may not need to be deemed chronically ill—in some cases, conditions from which you can fully recover may be eligible.
Subject to an elimination period before benefits eligibility, such as 90 days

Monthly benefit
Terminal illness You’re diagnosed with a terminal illness with a life expectancy of less than six months to two years, with the time period depending on the specific rider and insurer. Lump-sum benefit
Critical illness You’ve experienced a qualifying condition, such as a major heart attack, an invasive cancer, paralysis, major organ transplant, or end-stage renal failure. Lump-sum benefit

A life insurance policy with a chronic or LTC rider can be an option for people who don’t qualify for long-term care insurance. For instance, diabetics may not qualify for long-term care insurance, but may qualify for a term life insurance policy.

How to Get Accelerated Death Benefits

Many insurance providers include one or more ADBs as a standard feature in new life insurance policies, but may also offer enhanced living benefits at an additional cost, usually calculated as a percentage of the base premium. Some providers that include an ADB (without an extra charge) will discount the acceleration of the death benefit, depending on a number of variables, including the insured’s age, gender, and policy specifics like cash value, and may also charge a service fee if exercised. 

Although ADBs are common with permanent life insurance policies, like whole life and universal life insurance, some insurers also include them in term life policies (or make them available for purchase). Typically, providers offer ADB riders when you purchase a new life insurance policy, but some carriers allow you to add one to existing coverage.

Alternatives to Accelerated Death Benefits 

Tapping an accelerated benefit is a good option to have, but may not always be the best choice, especially if it would trigger tax consequences or affect your eligibility for Medicaid. Plus, the benefit your beneficiaries receive will be reduced or even entirely eliminated. Depending on your financial circumstances, you may want to choose another alternative.

  • Access the cash value: Permanent life insurance policies, such as whole life insurance and universal life, allow you to borrow or withdraw from your policy’s accumulated cash value. If you take out a loan, you must pay interest, and any unpaid amount will be deducted from the death benefit when you die. Or, you could completely surrender the policy for its cash surrender value, in which case the policy would end and no death benefit would be paid. Withdrawing from the cash value or surrendering a permanent life insurance policy may incur fees and tax consequences.
  • Life or viatical settlement: You might be able to sell your policy in a life or viatical settlement. Depending on the type of settlement, you may need to be diagnosed as terminally or chronically ill, or be over a certain age, such as 65. Selling the policy ends your coverage and you may have to pay taxes on the sale, depending on the type of settlement and your qualifying conditions.
  • Long-term care insurance: Long-term care insurance can be expensive, but makes sense if you want or need benefits that are not capped by a percentage of your policy’s death benefit. Depending on the terms of the policy, LTC insurance can provide coverage for long-term care expenses for two years up to a lifetime.

Key Takeaways

  • A life insurance accelerated death benefit rider allows you to use a portion of your policy’s death benefit before you die if you have a qualifying condition.
  • Four general types of living benefits are available: critical illness, chronic illness, terminal illness, and long-term care.
  • Accelerated death benefit funds are an advance of the death benefit and reduce the amount available to beneficiaries.
  • Typically, insurers limit the amount of accelerated benefit you can receive based on a percentage of your policy’s face value.
  • Companies may include an accelerated death benefit rider at no extra charge, but will discount the accelerated death benefit and possibly charge a service fee if the rider is exercised.