What should you do with the life insurance death benefit?

Spend your life insurance payout on immediate expenses, like debt repayment or childcare. Work with a certified financial planner to decide how to invest and spend your money.

Headshot of Policygenius editor Nupur GambhirAmanda Shih author photo

By

Nupur Gambhir

Nupur Gambhir

Senior Editor & Licensed Life Insurance Expert

Nupur Gambhir is a licensed life, health, and disability insurance expert and a former senior editor at Policygenius. Her insurance expertise has been featured in Bloomberg News, Forbes Advisor, CNET, Fortune, Slate, Real Simple, Lifehacker, The Financial Gym, and the end-of-life planning service Cake.

&Amanda Shih

Amanda Shih

Editor & Licensed Life Insurance Expert

Amanda Shih is a licensed life, disability, and health insurance expert and a former editor at Policygenius, where she covered life insurance and disability insurance. Her expertise has appeared in Slate, Lifehacker, Little Spoon, and J.D. Power.

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A life insurance payout is paid in a tax-free lump sum (or sometimes in installments) and can be spent however and whenever you want. 

The right thing to do with the life insurance death benefit depends on your current expenses, including housing, bills, or childcare. If there’s anything left over after you’ve covered those costs, you can invest the rest and save for retirement or future expenses. Work with a financial professional to make a plan for the money that fits your needs.

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What to do with a life insurance payout

How you spend your life insurance payout depends on your financial obligations. Families often put the death benefit toward end-of-life expenses, medical expenses, debt, and everyday costs of living.

Certified financial planners can help you build a personalized strategy for how to handle the lump-sum payment. Each advisor will have their own approach, so speaking to multiple people will help you find the right strategy.

“If you come into a lump sum of money, sit down with a certified financial planner, not [just] an investment advisor,” says Karen DeRose, founder of DeRose Financial Planning Group. “An investment advisor can only invest your money. A CFP can do both. They can first come up with a plan to figure out how much of this money you need every month — or if you don't really need the money and it needs to be invested for your retirement.”

Monthly bills & everyday expenses

Everyday expenses add up. For example, the average cost of caring for a newborn in Wisconsin, is $12,567 per year. [1] The average Green Bay resident spends $359.74 on utilities and $880.47 on rent each month. [2]

Whether you’ve lost a primary breadwinner or a stay-at-home parent, you’ll need to replace their contributions to your household. The life insurance payout can cover groceries, bills, house cleaning services, and more.

Childcare or dependent care

Parents spend about $284,570 [3] raising a child through age 18. If the policyholder left behind any children or grandchildren, the death benefit can be put toward daycare, school tuition, after-school programs, or any other necessities.

The death benefit can also provide for aging parents or any other dependents.

College tuition

The median cost of attending a private nonprofit university in 2020 to 2021 was $38,070. [4]

One way to save for future college costs is by putting part of the life insurance payout into a 529 college savings account. The earnings on 529 investments are tax-deferred and any withdrawals won’t be taxed as long as they go toward qualifying education expenses.

Outstanding debts

When you pass away, shared debts such as mortgages often fall on the shoulders of family members left behind. If someone co-signed your student loans, the responsibility of that debt falls on the co-signer. The life insurance payout can be put toward the remaining balance.

Medical expenses

Final medical expenses can be exceedingly high. Depending on the state, family members of the deceased might be responsible for any medical bills left unpaid before their death. The death benefit can go toward those costs or any future medical bills you might incur.

Final expenses

The average funeral costs $7,000 to $10,000. The life insurance payout can cover the costs of burial or cremation, items like caskets and urns, and any other funerary expenses.

If there’s money left over after you’ve covered all of your expenses, save and invest the rest for the future. 

How is the death benefit paid out?

Life insurance money is paid out in a few ways: 

  • Lump sum: You get the entire death benefit in one, tax-free payment.

  • Annuity: You’re paid in yearly installments over a set period until the money runs out.

  • Retained asset account: The insurance company holds the money in an account that earns a small amount of interest. You make withdrawals whenever you need.

A lump-sum payout is the default and is what most people stick with. An annuity is an option if you have fewer expenses because it earns interest over time. Retained asset accounts are less common, since they function much like your own personal savings account.

Is the life insurance payout taxed?

Lump-sum life insurance payments are untaxed, but interest earned on annuities or retained asset accounts is taxable. 

You may pay additional fees on an annuity that you wouldn’t pay on other traditional investments, so taking the payout as a lump sum and then creating a separate investment portfolio often gets you more bang for your buck.

→ Learn more about taxes and life insurance

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How long does it take to get the death benefit?

Depending on the policy and circumstances of the policyholder’s death, it can take one week to two months to be paid the life insurance proceeds. Providing the correct documentation from the get-go speeds up the claims process and minimizes your waiting time.

To claim the life insurance death benefit, the first thing you’ll have to do is submit a claim to the life insurance company. Filing a claim requires the deceased’s name, date of birth, policy number, and cause of death. You’ll also need documents like the death certificate and proof of your identity.

→ Learn more about submitting a life insurance claim

Who can claim a life insurance payout?

The only people who can collect the death benefit payout are the people listed as beneficiaries on the life insurance policy. Regardless of your relationship with the policyholder, if you’re not listed on the policy, you can’t claim the death benefit. Creditors and debt collectors also have no access to the payout.

If the primary beneficiary dies, then the payout goes to the contingent beneficiary. If no beneficiaries outlive the policyholder, a court decides who gets the insurance money and it can go to creditors or next of kin. 

Can a life insurance company refuse to pay out the death benefit?

While a life insurance policy pays out for most causes of death, there are rare situations when the payout could be delayed or denied. For example, if you lie on your initial application or stop paying your premiums and let your policy lapse, your insurance company could either pay only part of your benefit or deny the claim and only refund the premiums you paid into the policy. 

How you spend the payout from a life insurance claim ultimately comes down to your financial needs. A young surviving spouse may need the money to support a child, whereas an older spouse may simply use the payout to support their retirement. A licensed financial professional can help you make a plan for your payout.

Frequently asked questions

How should you spend a life insurance payout?

There are no limitations on spending life insurance money. Work with a financial planner to decide how to spend and invest the funds according to your financial needs.

How is the life insurance death benefit paid out?

You can choose to be paid in a tax-free lump sum, in an annuity (payments spread over several years), or in a retained asset fund (payments withdrawn from an account as you need).

Do you need to claim a life insurance payout on your taxes?

Lump-sum death benefit payouts are tax-free. If you receive the payments in installments, the interest gains are taxable.