Military Families and Insurance: Read the Fine Print

It’s no news that our military personnel put themselves in harm’s way every day they serve our country. Sometimes they pay the highest price in our defense. Their families pay the price too. Now the New York Attorney General’s office alleges that insurance companies MetLife and Prudential prey on our fallen heroes’ families by holding onto the death benefits from their life insurance policies.

Most of us assume that, if we die, our life insurance policy will pay off in the form of a check delivered to our family. Instead, these insurers put the service member’s death proceeds into an interest-bearing corporate account, delivering a book of drafts (similar to checks) to the policy beneficiary. The insurer argues this arrangement is a win-win: The account pays a modest interest rate, and the beneficiary can use the drafts like checks. The insurer profits from a portion of the interest if the account stays put.

Some military families feel they have been taken advantage of at the very time when they are most vulnerable.

My bet is that the insurers are mystified as to why military families (and the New York Attorney General) are so upset. After all, the family can write a check on the balance. And it does earn interest. Where’s the beef?

The beefs are two. First, unlike most bank accounts, the insurer’s corporate accounts are not FDIC-insured. That’s a big deal if the insurer goes out of business. Second, the military families miss a tax opportunity by leaving the death proceeds in the insurance company account: For up to one year after receipt, they are entitled to put all or part of the proceeds into a Roth IRA or Coverdell education account, where the proceeds can grow tax-free to fund retirement or education.

MetLife and Prudential informed the beneficiaries that the money could be withdrawn from their accounts, but reports say that the insurers stayed mum about the right to transfer the balance to a tax-sheltered account. The insurers had no legal obligation to brief the family on the Roth IRA opportunity, but surely the families of our fallen service members deserve more consideration. I can understand why the AG is upset.

If you’re a beneficiary of one of these insurer’s accounts, what should you do? According to CPA Sheri Allshouse in Houston, if you want to contribute part or all of the proceeds to a Roth IRA but the one-year deadline has passed, it’s probably simply too late. Nevertheless, she says, there have been cases in which the IRS has shown some leniency in late transfers between Traditional IRAs and Roth IRAs. Talk with your CPA before you conclude that there’s no hope.

In addition, Houston CPA Laura Conway warns that the Roth IRA rollover is available only for life insurance proceeds from Servicemembers’ Group Life Insurance (SGLI) and military death gratuity policies, both programs sponsored by the Veterans Administration. Other life insurance benefits are not eligible.

Given the tough financial times we’ve all lived through recently, you may be concerned that your account is not FDIC-insured. Two thoughts here. First, rating agency Standard & Poors assigns a relatively strong AA- rating for financial stability to both MetLife and Prudential, implying that these insurers are unlikely to go belly-up anytime soon.

But you may still prefer to have an FDIC-insured account, and if so you’ll need to transfer your balance to a bank. Be careful that you don’t go from the frying pan to the fire: With some exceptions, FDIC insurance generally covers only the first $250,000 you have at the bank. These days lots of banks aren’t nearly as financially strong as some of the major life insurance carriers, so if you transfer money to one or more banks, be sure to keep the amount at each bank under the FDIC-insured limit. You can use the FDIC’s calculator to determine exactly how much of your bank account is FDIC-insured. And remember that not all banks are members of FDIC.

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