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Three Ways Corporate-Owned Life Insurance Could Help Your Business

Posted on: March 1st, 2022

Most of us own personal life insurance of one kind or another to take care of our families or cover expenses when we die. But as a business owner, you have the ability for your company to own life insurance—a situation that can come with some potentially powerful benefits that could help your business be nimbler and more responsive to changes, opportunities and challenges. 

With that in mind, here’s a look at how corporate-owned life insurance—COLI—may be able to play a role in your plans for your business.

Protecting and benefiting a company

The basics of COLI are pretty straightforward. As the name suggests, it’s life insurance that a corporation purchases for its own use. One or more employees are the named insured, and the corporation itself is the beneficiary—that is, the insurance is designed to essentially protect (or deliver some other benefit to) your business. COLI policies can be taken out on one employee or on multiple employees, depending on the purpose for the insurance.

There are several tax advantages because growth in the policy is tax-deferred and can be accessed tax-free if the policy is structured properly, and the life insurance benefits are income tax-free.

To better understand how COLI can potentially benefit a company, it’s helpful to recognize some of the multiple ways that you as a business owner can put a COLI policy to work. Here are three reasons you might use COLI:

  • To protect against the loss of a key person
  • To fund a buy-sell agreement
  • To fund nonqualified deferred compensation (NQDC) plans

Let’s examine each one more closely.

Protect against loss of a key person

Key person insurance is a type of corporate-owned insurance designed to help a company remain financially healthy and to navigate various challenges that can occur if a person who is extremely vital to that company’s success dies. Such a “key person” might include an executive with deep relationships in the industry or a top salesperson who is responsible for generating a significant percentage of a firm’s annual revenues. When those types of people are out of the picture, a company’s financial situation can quickly falter—and potentially result in the firm going under.

When a company owns an insurance policy on a key person (or people) in its ranks, it pays the annual premiums using after-tax corporate dollars. If the key person dies, the company receives the death benefit tax-free. This money gives the company a cushion as it moves forward to replace the key person and get the new hire up to speed—a process that could be lengthy and expensive if the deceased ex-employee was exceptionally skilled. The life insurance funds can help the company with cash flow to pay debts or to hire and train the replacement.

Fund a buy-sell agreement

COLI can also be used to fund a buy-sell agreement that enables owners and/or shareholders to buy out a deceased partner’s stake in the company. The death benefit is used to purchase the shares of the company stock owned by that partner. 

We often see this arrangement used by proactive, successful entrepreneurs we encounter. Surviving owners of a company often do not want to be in business with the heirs of their deceased partner, especially if those heirs know little to nothing about business management or aren’t interested in running the firm. Likewise, the family members related to the deceased partner often don’t want to get involved in decision-making about the company’s future. 

A COLI policy can be used to buy the ownership interests held by the heirs, giving the family cash and helping ensure the business operations continue with as little disruption as possible. 

Of course, the owners themselves could take out personal policies on each other—but having the company buy the policy means the money is coming from after-tax corporate money rather than after-tax personal money (which could be taxed at a higher rate). 

Important: To avoid confusion and conflicts, the buyout process—including how COLI will be used to fund a buy-sell agreement—should be documented in a formal agreement between the owners. The less you leave to chance, the clearer the path forward may be.

Fund non-qualified deferred compensation plans

COLI doesn’t have to be used to address fallout from the loss or death of someone important to the company, however. It’s also commonly used as a tool for informally funding an NQDC—a benefit that companies often set up in order to attract and retain executives and other high-value talent who have a major impact on the company’s results. 

You’re likely aware that many entrepreneurs like NQDC plans for a number of reasons. The plans can offer greater flexibility than can qualified plans such as 401(k)s. One example of this: Because NQDC plans don’t have nondiscrimination rules, they can be offered only to your executives or other key employees if you choose—instead of to the entire workforce. Highly compensated employees tend to like these plans because they allow the employees to contribute significant sums—far more than is allowed under 401(k) plans, for example—and to defer paying taxes on some of their earnings. 

Entrepreneurs often choose to fund their NQDC plans using COLI—buying life insurance policies on their chosen employees and paying out benefits to those employees when they retire. If it’s properly structured, the cash value in these policies won’t be taxed at the federal level as it builds up. In addition, you can borrow against these policies and use the money to fund the plan itself, pay the premiums—or do both. (It may also be possible to deduct some of the interest you pay on a COLI loan, in some cases.) Finally, if the insured employee dies, the business receives a death benefit payout it can use for other purposes—such as funding other benefits. 

COLI limits

Over the years, the IRS and Congress have put significant limits on the use of COLI to curb what it saw as essentially corporate tax evasion. The following are two of the rules and limits:

  • The insured was an employee at any time during the 12-month period prior to death.
  • The insured was a director or highly compensated employee at issuance of the policy.

Additionally, as the employer, you need to give an employee written notice that you intend to insure his or her life and the maximum amount of the coverage before you buy the policy. You also have to give written notification to the employee if your company is a partial or total beneficiary of the policy.

Note: Other rules also apply, and tax rules can vary from state to state. 


COLI can be an important arrow in your quiver of business- and tax-planning strategies. Consulting with an advisor who understands the nuances of COLI can help you better evaluate the various ways it could potentially benefit your company, as well as how to implement it to achieve one or more of your key goals.

Three Ways Corporate-Owned Life Insurance Could Help Your Business

Disclaimer: This is general advice and information that may vary based on the state in which the company operates. Talk to a tax professional for specific guidance to determine what is accurate and relevant for your situation.

This report was prepared by, and is reprinted with permission from, VFO Inner Circle.  AES Nation, LLC is the creator and publisher of VFO Inner Circle reports.

Disclosure: The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and may not necessarily reflect those held by Kestra IS or Kestra AS. The material is for informational purposes only. It represents an assessment of the market environment at a specific point in time and is not intended to be a forecast of future events, or a guarantee of future results. It is not guaranteed by Kestra IS or Kestra AS for accuracy, does not purport to be complete and is not intended to be used as a primary basis for investment decisions. It should also not be construed as advice meeting the particular investment needs of any investor. Neither the information presented nor any opinion expressed constitutes a solicitation for the purchase or sale of any security. Securities offered through Kestra Investment Services, LLC (Kestra IS), member FINRA/SIPC. Investment advisory services offered through Kestra Advisory Services, LLC (Kestra AS), an affiliate of Kestra IS.

Fusion Wealth Management is not affiliated with Kestra IS or Kestra AS. https://www.kestrafinancial.com/disclosures

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