A life insurance policy benefit is usually paid to the beneficiary in a lump sum, which isn’t taxable.
However, a life insurance beneficiary may receive the policy amount in installments. If so, the benefit is placed into an account that can accrue interest. While the beneficiary won’t pay taxes on the benefit itself, they’ll be responsible for paying income taxes on any interest accrued.
Fed Manager’s recent article, “When Is Life Insurance Taxable? Four Scenarios to Consider,” gives the example of Jenny being the beneficiary of a $500,000 death benefit that earns 10% interest for one year before being paid out. She’ll owe income taxes on the $50,000 in interest growth.
The death benefit of a life insurance policy is usually paid directly to the beneficiaries named. If the benefit is included in the estate, it’s subject to potential federal and state estate taxes if it is above the tax exemption amount. About a dozen states have state estate taxes with exemptions, so if the death benefit amount is above these exemptions, any amount above the threshold would be subject to estate taxes.
A life insurance death benefit would be subject to taxes in the event of a taxable gift. This happens when three people serve three different roles in connection to the policy:
Assume that Tommy buys a life insurance policy for his wife, Tilly. They designate their son Teddy as the beneficiary. If Tilly dies and Teddy receives the death benefit, the IRS considers this a taxable gift from Tommy to Teddy because Tommy was the policyholder. In this situation, Tommy may have to pay gift taxes for any benefit amount that exceeds federal gift tax exemption limits.
The annual gift exclusion is $17,000 per individual. The lifetime limit is $12.92 million per individual. (These “numbers” are for 2023 and are adjusted for inflation.) To avoid this, Tilly could purchase and make payments on a policy herself, with Teddy still named as the beneficiary.
Reference: Fed Manager (April 25, 2023) “When Is Life Insurance Taxable? Four Scenarios to Consider”