Five things you might not know about life insurance

As a conversation-starter, life insurance is almost guaranteed to be followed by the type of silence normally found only in a hearing test chamber. After all, when you talk about life insurance, you’re really talking about death.

And who wants to do that? Allow me to break the silence by offering a few tips about this all-important coverage. They just might surprise you.

Tax-free death benefits. I’m amazed at how often I’m asked about the income-tax burden of life-insurance benefits. The typical answer: none. That’s because life insurance proceeds, whether $10,000 or $10 million, are generally income-tax-free.

Beneficiary trumps your will. If your legal will clearly states who gets your stuff when you die, make sure your life-insurance beneficiary arrangements match. A beneficiary designation – the part of the insurance application where you indicate who will get the proceeds – will supersede what’s in your will, and the money will pass directly to the beneficiary without going through court and the probate process, regardless of what your will says. While naming your estate as the beneficiary will allow your will to ultimately control who gets the life insurance, some folks wish to have as few assets pass through probate as possible.

Benefits may be tapped early. If you’re terminally ill, many insurance policies let you tap into a portion of available death benefits to pay for medical expenses. This provision, called an accelerated death-benefit rider, can go a long way toward helping ease the financial strain of a serious illness. Policies vary, so check with your life-insurance company for details.

Tell your kids to get covered – it can be cheap. Young families typically have fairly large requirements for life insurance. The average cost of raising a child in the United States is about $20,000 per year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And that doesn’t include college. Everyone should spend time with an online life-insurance calculator to determine how much coverage they need. A 25- or 30-year-old male might be able to get $500,000 of coverage for $20 or $30 per month and be locked in for the next 20 years, until his kids are on their own.

It’s flexible. You might think of life insurance as stuffy and inflexible. The reality is that many policies allow you to convert to different levels or types of coverage, and some even let you forgo premiums if your budget gets tight. So if you’re considering dropping or adding coverage, make sure you understand all the details. You’ll want to check with your insurance company so you don’t make any missteps.

Surprised? Regardless, now is as good a time as any to start your own life-insurance conversation or get one started for your loved ones.

J.J. Montararo is a certified financial planner for USAA, The American Legion’s preferred provider of financial services. Submit questions for him online.

This material is for informational purposes. Consider your own financial circumstances carefully before making a decision and consult with your tax, legal or estate planning professional.USAA means United Services Automobile Association and its insurance, banking, investment and other companies. Banks Member FDIC. Investments provided by USAA Investment Management Company and USAA Financial Advisors Inc., both registered broker dealers. USAA Financial Planning Services® refers to financial planning services and financial advice provided by USAA Financial Planning Services Insurance Agency, Inc. (known as USAA Financial Insurance Agency in California), a registered investment adviser and insurance agency and its wholly owned subsidiary, USAA Financial Advisors, Inc., a registered broker dealer. Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards, Inc. owns the certification marks CFP® and Certified Financial Planner TM in the United States, which it awards to individuals who successfully complete CFP Board's initial and ongoing certification requirements.