In No. 289 I described my personal dilemma concerning the age 100 problem. I said my wife and I, in our 80s, have nine old traditional participating whole life policies issued many years ago by four life insurance companies (A, B, C, and D). Six are on my life and three are on my wife's life. Given the lack of adequate responses to the problem by life insurance companies, I decided as a last resort to write to the policyholder service departments of the four companies about our policies. I hoped the companies would respond thoroughly, but planned to seek assistance from state insurance regulators if the companies did not respond adequately. In No. 289 I described the preliminary results, and here I discuss the final results of the unproductive project.
The policyholder service departments of the four insurance companies did not respond fully. I then sought assistance from regulators in the states where the policies were originally issued. As a result of my requests to regulators, the companies provided additional information, but still did not provide everything I needed.
Company A has a small paid-up policy on my wife. We inquired about the current cash value and the amount of taxable gain that would be reported on a 1099 if she surrenders the policy in 2019. We also asked for a sample of the letter the company will send as she nears the terminal age of 100 without having surrendered the policy. The company provided the cash value figure and the amount of the taxable gain if she surrenders the policy in 2019, but declined to provide the sample letter.
We still do not know precisely what will happen if my wife survives to the terminal age. Although the taxable gain if she now surrenders the policy would be modest, we have decided not to pay the tax. Instead we have decided to keep the policy in its paid-up status for the time being. The only action we are taking now is to change the dividend option from cash to paid-up insurance to avoid the need to deposit the small dividend check each year.
Company B has two small policies on my life. The company indicated the cash values that would be paid if I surrender the policies in 2019. However, the company said neither policy meets the company's guidelines for tax reporting to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), and therefore declined to provide the amounts of taxable gains. Furthermore, the company said it is my responsibility to determine "how, if, and what" to report to the IRS. Because I strive to report accurately to the IRS, because I know the premiums and the current cash values, and because I need dividend information to calculate the amounts of taxable gains, I asked for the historical dividend figures for every policy year. In response the company said:
The [dividend] history provided is for the last five years. Should you need additional historical information, a convenience fee will be charged as follows: for requests beyond five years up to and including ten years a fee of $25.00 is applicable and for requests beyond ten years a fee of $50.00 is applicable.
I have dividend figures for the past 30 years, but I do not have dividend figures going back for a total of about 70 years. I have decided not to spend $50 (or perhaps $100 for the two policies) for the information I need to calculate the amounts of the taxable gains accurately. I have also decided not to surrender the policies at this time, but rather to continue paying premiums for now.
Company C has three fairly large policies on my life and one small policy on my wife's life. We asked for a sample of the letter that would be sent to us if we should maintain the policies and approach the terminal age. We also asked for the cash values and the amounts of taxable gains if we surrender the policies in 2019. The company indicated the cash values but ignored our request for the sample letter and the amounts of taxable gains.
We asked again for the sample letter and the amounts of taxable gains. The company again provided the cash values, but again ignored our request for the sample letter and the amounts of taxable gains.
We sought assistance from the regulator. The company then provided the amounts of taxable gains. However, instead of providing the sample letter, the company provided copies of the policies and said they "do not have a stated maturity date," "do not mature or terminate at age 100," and "are not affected by the insured reaching age 100."
Although the policies do not have a stated maturity date, they are based on mortality tables with a terminal age of 100. We do not know what will happen if we reach the terminal age; that is, we do not know whether the face amount will grow, whether premiums will continue to be charged, whether the cash values will continue to grow, or whether dividends will continue to be paid. The amounts of life insurance protection (face amounts minus cash values) in the policies are small, and the amounts of taxable gains if we surrender the policies are large. We have decided not to surrender the policies at this time and incur the large taxes, but rather to continue paying premiums for now.
Company D has one fairly large policy on my life and one fairly large policy on my wife's life. We asked for a sample of the letter the company will send us if we should maintain the policies and approach the terminal age. We also asked for the cash values and the amounts of the taxable gains should we surrender the policies in 2019.
Having received no reply, we sought regulatory assistance. We then received a thorough reply from an officer who is a fellow of the Society of Actuaries. The actuary said the company had mailed responses to our original letter, we must not have received them, and the company was now addressing our questions. Here is the actuary's response:
You asked what will happen when the Insured reaches age 100. Your contracts do not specifically identify a maturity provision when the Insured reaches age 100. You can choose to leave the policies in force until death when the proceeds would be paid to your beneficiaries. Please note that under these contracts you would not receive any dividends beyond age 100 nor would any premiums be due. Alternatively, you could choose to access the cash surrender value via the options stated in your policy. It is not possible to accurately predict what the tax rules will be on your policy anniversary [many years from now]. [We] do not offer tax advice. You may want to consult your personal tax advisor regarding your particular situation.
The actuary indicated the cash values in 2019 and the amounts of taxable gains. For each policy, the amount of the taxable gain would be identical to the cash value. When we inquired about that point, the actuary provided this explanation:
The general rule is that an amount received is included in gross income to the extent it exceeds the investment in the contract calculated as of the date of distribution. For both of your contracts, the dividends you received in total exceeded the total premiums paid (cost basis) into that contract many years ago. As a result, were you to surrender the contracts today, the entire surrender value would become taxable gain. Should you pay additional premiums ... prior to [the policies'] 2019 anniversaries, those payments would then become cost basis, which would be credited against income at surrender. Our projections assumed you would not [pay additional premiums], so that the projected surrender values exactly equaled the estimated taxable gains.
The actuary's explanation reminded me that for many years we have been receiving 1099s from the company for a substantial portion of each dividend paid on the policies. The actuary went on to discuss extended term insurance and reduced paid-up insurance as possible options for us.
We have decided not to surrender the policies and incur the large taxable gains. Instead we have decided to continue paying premiums for now.
The Lebbin Case
In three of the six posts identified in the first paragraph of this post (Nos. 226, 241, and 269), I discussed a lawsuit filed by Gary Lebbin. who is now past the terminal age of 100. The trial is tentatively scheduled to begin on January 22, 2019. However, I think the case will not go to trial. I consider it likely that the parties will reach a settlement and, because it is an individual lawsuit rather than a class action, the settlement terms will be confidential. (See Lebbin v. Transamerica, U.S. District Court, Southern District of Florida, Case No. 9:18-cv-80558).
When we purchased life insurance many years ago, it did not occur to us that we would encounter income tax problems if we were fortunate enough to live long lives. We bought most of the policies after I became intensely interested in life insurance in the late 1950s, and I am embarrassed to admit I did not become aware of the age 100 problem until 2001. I can try to dodge responsibility by observing that neither life insurance companies nor regulators have ever deemed the problem worthy of being disclosed to unsuspecting life insurance buyers. However, I should have detected the problem many years earlier.
We have decided not to surrender or modify any of our policies at the present time. Although they provide us with only a small amount of unneeded life insurance protection, we are not willing to pay the income taxes associated with surrendering the policies issued by companies A, C, and D. As for company B, we are unable to calculate accurately the income taxes associated with surrendering the two policies, we are not willing to pay for the necessary information, and we refuse to evade payment of income taxes that would be payable. In short, we have decided to retain all the policies in their present form for the time being.
I express appreciation to the many readers who commented on No. 289. One even offered to help by contacting the companies on our behalf, but I declined the gracious offer.
I offered complimentary packages in four posts mentioned at the beginning of this post: No. 141, No. 226, No. 241, and No. 269. They contain a substantial amount of information about the age 100 problem, and remain available. If you would like any or all of them, send an email to email@example.com and ask for them.