Should Retirees Keep Their Life Insurance?

To keep or not to keep? That is the question many retirees face. Should they keep their life insurance policy or not? Unfortunately, experts say there are no easy answers.

"I'm afraid that the only meaningful answer is: 'It depends,'" says John Olsen, co-author of "The Annuity Advisor" and principal of Olsen Financial Group in Kirkwood, Mo. "Retirees are individuals, having individual situations and goals. Some retirees need life insurance. Others won't need any life insurance. And some may not need the life insurance they already own."

So what's a retiree to do? Step 1, says Edward Graves, a professor at The American College in Bryn Mawr, Pa. and editor of "McGill's Life Insurance," is to revisit goals and objectives. Then retirees must put finger to calculator.

How much do those goals cost? And is there enough money, including life insurance policies, to pay for those goals? Is there too much money? Or is there just enough? The answers to those questions will dictate what a retiree might do with a life insurance policy. "Many people don't realize that in many cases there are still ongoing wants and needs," says Graves.

Those who don't have the time (you're retired so you must have the time) nor energy (then again, it's pretty mind-numbing work) to do things by the book, might consider these rules of thumb, courtesy of Olsen, Graves and Stephan Leimberg, co-author of "Tools & Techniques of Life Insurance Planning" You may need life insurance if:

Many retirees have purchased larger homes or second homes late in life and still have mortgages on those properties. In other cases, they may have an open home-equity line of credit with a large balance. In those cases, the death benefit could be used to pay of such debt.

In some cases, a spouse who has a traditional pension plan might opt (with permission from the spouse) to take a single life expectancy pension and then purchase or maintain a life insurance policy. Doing so increases the monthly income from the pension. But it also means the pension stops when that spouse with the pension plan dies. If done right, however, the death benefit should help the surviving spouse who didn't have the pension maintain their lifestyle.

Unfortunately, this strategy isn't right for everyone. "It makes sense about half the time," says Olsen. And everyone who considers this strategy should crunch the numbers. "It should be based on an informed analysis not an off-the-wall guess," says Graves. Things to consider as part of the analysis include both spouse's life expectancy as well as payout rates. In other cases, experts say a retiree who has a survivor with special needs should likewise consider keeping their life insurance in force. Usually, experts say it's an either-or case with children with special needs. Care is either state-funded or privately funded.

In many cases, the beneficiaries of a large enough estate might need to liquidate in full or in part IRAs or sell homes or liquidate other holdings to pay for what some call death taxes. In cases where there might be estate taxes due, life insurance can be used to pay the bill. Often, couples will purchase or maintain a second-to-die life insurance policy to pay the bill.

The strategies and tactics used can differ, but the intent is the same. Naming a charity as the beneficiary of a life insurance policy is one great way to transfer assets to organizations that could use the money. In some cases, a retiree who has a large enough estate might consider either naming the charity as the owner and beneficiary of the policy (assuming one lives more than three years after the transfer) to remove the asset from the taxable estate. In other cases, Olsen says retirees might consider naming the charity as the beneficiary of an IRA and leaving their traditional survivors as the beneficiaries of the life insurance policy. This tactic creates a bit of a tax arbitrage. There's no income tax due on the death benefit if the traditional heirs are the beneficiaries of the life insurance policy, but there would be income tax due on distributions from an IRA if they remained beneficiaries.

Graves says retirees who anticipate such costs might consider using the cash value in their life insurance policies to pay the bills.

In those cases, the retiree should make sure the business partner owns the life insurance policy.

If none of those things apply, if retirees have more money than they need, they could cut back on their coverage, says Graves. They could reduce the death benefit to the amount they need. Or, if they don't need life insurance at all, they could take the cash value in the policy or explore what's called a life settlement.

Taking a life settlement involves plenty of risk, say the experts. But for those with a legitimate need and for those who work with a reputable company, a life settlement can be a better option than taking the cash value. With a life settlement, a private company buys a person's life insurance contract for less than the death benefit but more than the cash value. The company becomes the beneficiary of the policy and receives the death benefit when the original person insured dies.