How to ensure life insurance isn't part of your taxable estate

If you have a life insurance policy, you may want to ensure that the benefits your family will receive after your death won’t be included in your estate. That way, the benefits won’t be subject to federal estate tax.


Current exemption amounts


For 2021, the federal estate and gift tax exemption is $11.7 million ($23.4 million for married couples). That’s generous by historical standards but in 2026, the exemption is set to fall to about $6 million ($12 million for married couples) after inflation adjustments — unless Congress changes the law.


In or out of your estate


Under the estate tax rules, insurance on your life will be included in your taxable estate if:

  • Your estate is the beneficiary of the insurance proceeds, or

  • You possessed certain economic ownership rights (called “incidents of ownership”) in the policy at your death (or within three years of your death).

It’s easy to avoid the first situation by making sure your estate isn’t designated as the policy beneficiary.


The second rule is more complicated. Just having someone else possess legal title to the policy won’t prevent the proceeds from being included in your estate if you keep “incidents of ownership.” Rights that, if held by you, will cause the proceeds to be taxed in your estate include:

  • The right to change beneficiaries,

  • The right to assign the policy (or revoke an assignment),

  • The right to pledge the policy as security for a loan,

  • The right to borrow against the policy’s cash surrender value, and

  • The right to surrender or cancel the policy.

Be aware that merely having any of the above powers will cause the proceeds to be taxed in your estate even if you never exercise them.


Buy-sell agreements and trusts