The Unholy Trinity Life Insurance Gift Tax Trap

Raymond Bell |

People take out life insurance with the understanding that the death benefit is paid to their beneficiaries’ tax free. What is often left out of the conversation regarding tax treatment of the death benefit is how the policy is structured in terms of who is the insured, owner, and beneficiary. A simple oversight can create the unholy triangle or the goodman rule trap.

The Goodman Rule is a 1946 US court case, Goodman v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue. Mrs. Goodman transferred several life insurance policies she owned on her husband to a Revocable Trust in 1930. The trust became irrevocable after Mr. Goodman passed away in 1946. Mrs. Goodman as the owner then donor failed to give up control of the trust and was responsible for making a “taxable gift.” The policy had been structured with Mr. Goodman as the insured, Mrs. Goodman as the owner and donor to the trust, and the beneficiaries were her three children and sister in-law. Because Mrs. Goodman retained some control of the trust the death benefit was considered an “incomplete gift”. The gift tax would have been avoided had Mrs. Goodman relinquished control of the trust.

You can avoid the Unholy Trinity by being cognizant of the three title structure points of a life insurance policy. The insured, owner, and beneficiary. Two of these structure points should be the same person or entity. When all three are different you likely have the Unholy Trinity. In the Goodman Case Mr. Goodman was the insured, Mrs. Goodman the owner and donor, and her children and sister in-law the beneficiaries.

Businesses taking out life insurance on owners and employees is a scenario where the policy falls victim to the Unholy Trinity. The business owns and pays for the policy on an employee who is the insured and the employee names their spouse as the beneficiary. The problem is that there is three different people or entities on each different structure point. An employer wanting to offer a benefit to an employee unknowingly creates a tax problem in the future. Executive bonus or split dollar arrangements can prevent that from happening.

When we talk about policy reviews, we always think about the policy performance, but a review should always include a review of the three title structure points to make sure there is no hidden gift tax issue lurking, because of the Unholy Trinity. The death of a loved one if stressful enough and being blindsided by additional taxes like Mrs. Goodman makes a tough time worse and it is avoidable.