Life insurance a lifesaver for college?

Some advisers recommend it to clients, but others want the idea banned

By Liz Skinner

Feb 17, 2013 @ 12:01 am (Updated 8:43 pm) EST

Parents worried about how they will afford the soaring cost of college for their children are being steered by some financial advisers in a surprising direction: life insurance.

Life insurance that carries a cash balance that can be pulled out and used to pay for higher education offers tax advantages over the popular Section 529 college savings plans, according to some advisers.

It is also a better way to pay for college because the assets aren't counted in the calculations used to determine financial aid eligibility, they contend.

Jeremy Turner, an adviser and president of Safe College Funding LLC, said that he steers about 10% to 15% of his middle-income clients in the direction of life insurance to plan for college costs.

“It's not a one-size-fits-all ap-proach,” he said. “It takes some crafting to make sure it's the right fit.”

Many college-funding experts, however, find flaws in the use of insurance for such purposes, especially for higher-income families who won't qualify for financial aid regardless of whether those assets are accounted for in financial assistance calculations.

HIGH COMMISSIONS

In a new Morningstar Inc. report, financial aid expert Mark Kantrowitz wrote that using life insurance to pay for college should be banned.

The policies are expensive and include high commissions for the salesperson, who benefits more than the family purchasing the policies, he wrote.

Although the insurance policies aren't counted as parental assets in the calculation of financial aid, the cash value pulled out of the policy is treated as income and does count the following year in aid calculations, Mr. Kantrowitz said.

Advisers said loans derived from the policies are not considered toward financial aid.

A new survey suggests that advisers are warming up to the idea of using life insurance for college funding.

About 29% of advisers recommended doing so last year, up from 23% in 2011 and 21% in 2009, according to a new survey by Financial Research Corp.

The life insurance policies being used this way could include whole-, universal- and variable-life policies that allow owners to withdraw a certain amount of the paid premiums without paying taxes or a penalty. Some of the policies, alternatively, allow holders to take out a loan from the insurance company using the cash value of the policy as collateral.

Gerber Life Insurance Co. has been selling a College Plan policy for about three years aimed at households with an income of $30,000 to $75,000 a year.

ENDOWMENT POLICIES

The firm has sold tens of thousands of these endowment life insurance policies and saw a 40% increase in new customers last year, according to the plan's chief marketing officer, George Thacker, who spoke last Thursday at the College Savings Foundation's annual meeting in Scottsdale, Ariz.

Funding college through a life insurance policy will make the most sense if the policy owners need long-term life insurance and plan to hold the policies for life, according to the Morningstar report.

A “complex cost-benefit analysis” is needed to determine whether this strategy makes sense for a particular family, the report said.

Assets that parents save in 529 plans are counted in need-based-aid calculations and can reduce aid by a maximum of 5.64%. Of course, most 529 plans incorporate state tax deductions, and account withdrawals from the plans aren't taxed as long as they are used for higher-education expenses such as tuition.

State Farm Life Insurance Co. sells insurance policies aimed at complementing a 529 college savings plan, director David Theile said at the college savings meeting.

His firm focuses on selling policies that provide a death benefit to fund the balance of college costs should something happen to a parent, he said.

lskinner@investmentnews.com Twitter: @skinnerliz

  @IN Wire

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