Does life insurance have a place in retirement? The answer depends on whom you ask.

One school of thought holds that retirees would be better off saving their money, especially if they’ve amassed a sizable nest egg and their children are grown and financially self-sufficient. But for many advisors, that’s not necessarily the best advice.

“That is nuts,” says Ben G. Baldwin Jr., director emeritus of Baldwin Financial Advisors, a registered investment advisor in Arlington Heights, Ill. He adds that a possible justification for dropping life insurance might be if the retiree can no longer afford the premiums. Otherwise, he says, “It is an asset that allows you to use other assets in your nest egg for retirement purposes.”

It can, however, be a tricky sort of asset. Baldwin says he likes the idea of specifically using existing life insurance for retirement planning, “the operative word being ‘existing,’” he says. “Scams can occur when people try to sell new insurance to older people who really cannot afford the premium.”

In fact, there have been many life insurance scams over the years. Lawrence J. Rybka, president and CEO of Akron, Ohio-based Valmark Financial Group, is an attorney and certified financial planner who says he is familiar with a number of varied methods used by scammers to persuade retirees to buy insurance they don’t need or can’t afford. To protect yourself, he says, “test any idea with a network of other trusted advisors, lawyers, CPAs, etc. … If there is not professional liability coverage for a concept, end of story.”

Problems can come in many forms. In one recent case that made The Wall Street Journal, a permanent life policy was terminated as the policyholder turned 100. Rybka notes that many other older policies also end prematurely, likely because they are based on outmoded longevity assumptions.

On the upside, he says the Department of Labor’s fiduciary rule is supposed to reduce unscrupulous sales of life insurance policies. The rule comes into play if the advisor gets additional compensation, directly or indirectly, from a sale of insurance that involves a qualified plan, says Rybka. “So a whole series of recommendations using life insurance are now impacted.”

For instance, he cites what’s known as “pension maximization,” a strategy in which an agent persuades the client to purchase a life-only option before retirement, instead of dual or joint coverage, then recommends buying a new, separate life policy to replace the income lost when the primary beneficiary dies. In this way, the agent scores two sales when one joint policy might have done the trick and been in the client’s best interest.

Possible Exceptions
But there are times when insurance can play a role in retirement. Baldwin acknowledges that he bought a new life insurance policy for himself at the age of 72. “It frees up my other assets, such as my old, asset-rich life insurance policy, because it is no longer needed for legacy purposes,” he says.

Baldwin’s old policy had a provision titled “optional modes of settlement,” he says, which enabled him to cash it in for monthly income that will last his and his wife’s lifetimes. So his advice to clients (and their advisors) is, “Get out those old policies from rock solid insurance companies and carefully check the contract language for unique retirement planning opportunities.” (And, needless to say, for termination deadlines.)

Rybka, too, acknowledges there’s a place for insurance at this time of a client’s life, insisting, “there are lots of reasons for buying and maintaining life insurance after retirement, including paying transfer taxes, providing a legacy for kids and grandkids, [and providing] gifts to charity.”

But it’s still important to keep in mind, he says, “Clients at or near retirement may not have enough time to use life insurance as an accumulation vehicle—that is, to pay the premiums and then gain the benefit of taking out loans and withdrawals on a tax-favored basis for retirement income.”

A Piece of the Pie
Life insurance may fit best as a component of an overall retirement strategy. It may come with valuable riders, such as long-term-care coverage. “Hybrid long-term-care/life policies fit into many sound plans for retirement,” says Rybka.

“Well-structured life insurance,” he adds, “is a great vehicle for a piece of a sound retirement plan … [But] very few clients or firms … understand the advantages of life insurance coming into a planning engagement.” Advisors, he says, must be responsible for identifying situations where the insurance is appropriate. “Education is needed to help clients make good decisions,” he says.

Of course, under the DOL rule, it’s now required to show why life insurance is in a client’s best interests. So it behooves advisors to understand their clients’ entire financial situation. That, says Rybka, includes “taking into account all of their assets, income sources, tax rates, unique needs, health history and retirement-income requirements. This is a service everyone needs.”

A Complex Instrument
Bob Gavlak, a certified financial planner and wealth advisor with Strategic Wealth Partners, a registered investment advisor in Columbus, Ohio, says life insurance decisions should be made and remade every time a financial plan is revisited. “Clients should take stock of their life insurance at any major life event”—when children and grandchildren are born, for instance, or after a client loses his or her job or gets promoted, after marriages and divorces and, of course, at retirement.

What’s more, Gavlak notes, insurance adds cash to help those trying to divide their non-liquid assets, making it a useful tool for equalization in estate planning. Gavlak says one of his clients has seven children and the family’s chief asset is a pine tree farm.

How can the client divide the farm among seven heirs? Life insurance provides an answer. “Leave that farm to one kid, then the other six split evenly the appropriate cash [from the life insurance policy],” he says.

So, as a tool, life insurance can have many useful applications. “Having permanent life insurance provides greater flexibility for most retirement planning,” says Steven Schacter, a senior vice president at Forest Hills Financial Group in New York City. For instance, a permanent and fully funded life policy can enable retirees to spend down other assets. “The life insurance death benefit can and will replace those assets on a tax-favored basis upon death,” he says.

That’s important, since the traditional nest egg withdrawal rate of 4% a year won’t go far for most retirees, even if they have $1 million saved. With life insurance, though, clients might be able to withdraw more, effectively drawing a higher rate of retirement income, says Schacter. “Ultimately, they will receive two to three times the ‘traditional income,’ with the $1 million spend-down being replaced by the life policy,” he says. “Essentially, the life insurance turns into a living benefit for retirement, in addition to a traditional death benefit.”

Premature Surrender
A living benefit as well as a death benefit? That may be news to some. “Most people think of life insurance in its simplest form: If I die, my heirs get the death benefit,” says Edward Kohlhepp, a certified financial planner in Doylestown, Pa. “They’re not aware of legacy planning, asset allocation, and wealth management opportunities.”

Some clients can be persuaded to keep a policy if they think about what it can do for others. “Life insurance can make a difference for heirs or a charity,” he says. “Clients may like that a policy can enable their grandchildren to attend college or [can] help their church.” It can also help cover the costs of a funeral, probate and executor fees.

Yet many clients surrender their policies prematurely. “Each policy should be analyzed before surrendering,” says Kohlhepp. If cash flow is the issue, he says, “withdrawals can often serve as tax-free loans.” For paying the premiums, Kohlhepp often suggests clients use their required minimum distributions (RMDs) from an IRA (or other retirement account) when they reach age 70 and a half.

An Extra Bucket
Retirement can be seen as a time of income distribution. “The key to income distribution is taking cash flow from the right buckets,” says Herbert K. Daroff, an attorney and certified financial planner at Baystate Financial Planning in Boston. And those who have a whole life policy, he says, have an extra bucket to draw upon, in addition to traditional qualified and nonqualified accounts.

“Before you’ve accumulated that nest egg and paid off your debts, life insurance assures that heirs will be able to continue their education, provide for their needs, and more,” says Daroff. “After you’ve built up that nest egg and paid off debts, life insurance is a very economical way to pay income taxes on retirement accounts and estate taxes, if any.”

In addition, it can be used to “fund the income taxes on a Roth conversion at death. It also gives you permission to invade principal, to live on more than just RMDs, knowing that the principal will be replaced for [your] surviving spouse and/or descendants,” says Daroff.

Still Valuable
So even though the discussion has been muddied by unscrupulous agents, life insurance can be a valuable asset for a broad spectrum of needs. “It is a much-maligned product that has significant tax and financial benefits when sold correctly and owned correctly,” says Daroff.

And that’s true even in the later stages of life. “Just because you have amassed that nest egg, would you cancel your homeowner’s insurance or car insurance?” asks Daroff. “Life insurance, if you will, is fire insurance on your income distribution—that is, your retirement planning.”

As clients better understand the risks and advantages, there’s little doubt that advisors will need to address the uses and limits of life insurance in retirement.