Life insurance can make up a large part of your taxable estate if you own the policy. If you have certain powers over a policy (called "incidents of ownership"), you are considered the owner of the policy. Policy proceeds are also included if they are payable to the estate or the proceeds are receivable by another for the benefit of the estate.
Incidents of Ownership
If you have certain rights over a life insurance policy, the policy proceeds will be included in your estate. Rights that are considered incidents of ownership include the following:
Paying premiums is not a sign of ownership. You are allowed to pay the premiums for someone else's policy on your life. The premiums could be subject to gift tax if they exceed the 2020 limit of $15,000 (same as in 2019), however where premium amount exceeds the annual exclusion amount in any year such excess can be applied against the additional lifetime gift exclusion of $11.58 million ($11.4 million in 2019); in this way gift tax is avoided. If you have any incidents of ownership in the policy, the policy proceeds will be included in your gross estate, even if it is payable to someone else (your beneficiary). If this happens, the people named in your will may be left with less because there may be estate tax due on the life insurance policy.
SUGGESTION: Even if your life insurance policy is taxable to your estate, it should not generate income tax for the people who receive the death benefit amount.
Second-to-Die Life Insurance Policies
These life insurance policies insure two lives and are primarily used for estate planning purposes to help pay estate taxes at the death of the surviving spouse (second-to-die). They are typically either whole or universal life policies and are usually written to insure husband and wife. This type of policy can be used to cover an estate tax bill, to provide for heirs, or to make a charitable contribution. The premium on a second-to-die policy is generally lower than for separate policies since the policy is priced based on a joint age and the insurance company's administrative expenses are less with one policy.
Typically, an irrevocable life insurance trust is set up before the insurance is issued. The trust is the owner and beneficiary of the policy so that the policy proceeds are not included in the insured's taxable estate.