How does a variable universal life (VUL) insurance policy stack up as an alternative to a Roth IRA (for retirement planning) or a Section 529 Plan (for college tuition planning)? Using a VUL policy in lieu of a Roth IRA or a Section 529 Plan will probably not make sense if funding for retirement or college is the only objective. However, a VUL policy may make great sense where funding for retirement, college, or both, is desirable and there is also a need for life insurance. This article will explore the advantages and disadvantages of a VUL policy compared to Roth IRAs and Section 529 Plans.
VUL insurance is permanent insurance that provides a death benefit with the ability to build cash value. With VUL, the policy owner chooses which professionally-managed funds to invest the premiums (net of the cost of insurance and policy/administrative fees). These funds also charge administrative fees.
The policy is called "variable" because its account values will vary according to the performance of the funds chosen. It is called "universal" because the policy owner can set the premium amount and payment schedule provided they are sufficient to support the death benefit and sustain the policy. A VUL policy can cover a single life or joint lives (i.e., a survivorship policy). A VUL policy is an ideal product for someone who needs death benefit protection (i.e., to replace income, to provide liquidity to pay estate taxes, or simply to create an estate) and is also looking to supplement retirement income or to save for educational expenses.
Assuming the VUL policy is not a Modified Endowment Contract (i.e., a policy that fails to meet the tests of IRC Section 7702A, which are designed to prevent the over-funding of policies), loans are free from current income taxation and withdrawals are income taxed only to the extent that they exceed the owner's basis in the policy. But, for policies issued after 1984, a withdrawal taken within 15 years of policy issuance that reduces policy benefits is subject to income tax under IRC Section 7702(f)(7)(B). After 15 years, there is no immediate income tax. The 15-year rule does not apply to policy loans.
Thus, similar to a Roth IRA or a Section 529 plan, the account values in a VUL policy may be accessed without income taxes. However, policy loans and withdrawals may impact investment performance, death benefits, no-lapse guarantees and the tax impact upon the lapse of a policy. Moreover, unlike non-variable policies, the insurance company does not guarantee the account values of a VUL insurance policy. Since the policy values may vary either upward or downward based on the performance of the investment funds selected, a VUL policy presents a risk to the death benefit.
VUL vs Roth IRA
Both Roth IRAs and VUL policies offer the owner a choice of investment options and, for both products, the contributions/premiums are not tax deductible. With a Roth IRA, the interest or earnings on the account values are income tax free, while the interest or earnings with a VUL policy are income tax deferred. Withdrawals from Roth IRAs are income tax free if the account owner is at least age 59 or older. As discussed above, with a VUL policy, withdrawals up to basis are not taxable; and policy loans are not taxable, provided the policy remains in force until the insured dies. With both products, death benefits are income tax free to the beneficiaries, provided the Roth IRA has been open for at least five years.