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Life insurance policies are usually meant to help your loved ones cover expenses and manage their financial burdens after you die. If you're willing to give up the payout — known as the death benefit — viatical settlements can make policies useful while you're still alive. They do this by giving you cash upfront in exchange for your future life insurance payout.
Losing your death benefit can have a big impact on the people you leave behind, so viatical settlements aren't something to take lightly. With many policies now offering life insurance riders to help support you while you're still alive, you may no longer need to sell your policy.
What is a viatical settlement?
In a viatical settlement, you sell the benefit of your life insurance policy when you have very little time left to live due to illness or injury, usually less than three years. You can sell any type of life insurance — term, whole, universal, etc. — but you'll need to find a buyer in the market for that type of policy.
Viatical settlements are different from policy features that allow you to tap part of your death benefit while you're still alive, though they often apply in the same situations. The most common version of this is the accelerated death benefit rider, which allows you to access a portion of your death benefit if you're diagnosed with a serious or terminal illness. You can spend the money however you like — many people use it to cover medical bills and final expenses.
For some people, the absence of an accelerated death benefit provision or the need for more money than the benefit provides can lead them to sell the future benefit of their policy.
How much does a viatical settlement pay?
The payment you get from a viatical settlement should be somewhere between the value of the policy's death benefit and any cash value the policy has accrued. Cash value is a component of permanent life insurance policies — it’s not available with term life insurance.
For instance, let's look at a hypothetical permanent policy that will pay out $1 million when you die. Over the years, this policy might have built a cash value of $150,000, allowing you to get cash from your life insurance by borrowing or withdrawing some of this value.
If the $150,000 isn’t enough, you might be able to get a viatical settlement of $500,000 by giving up the policy.
The actual amount paid depends on all the values involved and the life expectancy of the seller. As a rule of thumb, the longer you have to live, the less you'll be paid. Taking a viatical settlement also means the life insurance beneficiaries you originally chose will get nothing from your policy when you die.
Compare that payment to an accelerated death benefit rider, which might allow for monthly payments over a two-year period. Your million-dollar life insurance policy might offer $250,000 in total payments and, when you die, your beneficiaries would still get $750,000 — the original $1 million minus your $250,000 in accelerated payments.
Amounts will vary depending on your policy's value, your health, the type of policy you have and even what state you live in. Accelerated death benefit riders usually allow you to withdraw 25% to 50% of your policy’s value, though some insurers let you tap up to 95%. Viatical settlements typically range from 50% to 70% of the policy's value.
Viatical settlement basics
These are key things to know before exploring a viatical settlement:
There are guidelines to follow. In most states, taking part in a viatical settlement involves both you and the buyer (the "viatical settlement provider," which is usually a company) to meet requirements, including rules about your health. Like an accelerated death benefit, you'll need to be chronically sick or suffering from a terminal illness to pursue a settlement.
Be aware of the tax treatment. Viatical settlements are not subject to federal income tax when life expectancy is less than two years. Outside of that, to get the best tax treatment, you must sell to a company that is properly licensed with your state. If your state doesn’t have licensing requirements, then the company must comply with the National Association of Insurance Commissioner’s Model Act and Regulations on viatical settlements. Viatical settlement taxation can be complex, and anyone considering a settlement should talk to an independent tax advisor.
» MORE: Is life insurance taxable?
Alternatives to viatical settlements
In many cases, an accelerated death benefit will replace the need for a viatical settlement. The process for claiming an accelerated benefit is relatively straightforward. The rider is available on most insurance policies and often the benefit amount is not much less than what a settlement would offer.
Life settlements are another option, and they do not require you to be terminally ill. You would still sell your policy to a third party. However, there are complex taxation rules around the money that’s received, so it’s worth speaking to a tax professional if you’re considering this route.
If you own a cash value policy, you can also consider borrowing against your life insurance policy. A life insurance loan keeps your coverage in place, generates immediate cash and leaves something behind for your beneficiaries.
If you’re approached to buy a viatical settlement as an investor, know they can be risky investments. Weigh the pros and cons against your financial situation, and speak to a financial or tax advisor before committing to a purchase.