Pitfalls to look out for with whole-of-life assurance policies

Pitfalls to look out for with whole-of-life assurance policies

Whole-of-life assurance policies written into trust can offer a straight-forward estate-planning solution. However, there are some potential timing traps that need to be considered.


Some individuals with a large estate will lack the means, or desire, to gift lump sums or invest into business relief qualifying assets in order to reduce their inheritance tax exposure. 

Life cover written into trust can be an affordable and sustainable way to provide the beneficiaries with the means to pay any IHT liability.

For someone with little or no liquid assets but surplus income, whole-of-life written into trust can be an extremely tax-efficient means to provide a lump sum at the appropriate time. The policy proceeds are paid directly to the trustees so there is no need to apply for legal title before accessing the lump sum.

It is important that the timing of the payout matches the tax point so it is available when required. 

For married couples/civil partners, IHT is commonly deferred until second death, so a joint-life, second death policy would work well.

Writing whole-of-life into trust

The usual considerations over whether to use a discretionary or bare trust will apply, balancing the need for flexibility against the certainty of a beneficial entitlement and overall tax position.

The underlying trust will determine whether the premium payments are chargeable lifetime transfers or potentially exempt transfers.

For policies written into discretionary trust, trustees can direct the policy proceeds to the appropriate beneficiaries to compensate for any IHT paid. 

However, a discretionary trust does risk periodic/exit charges being payable, and potentially at a time when the trustees have no available funds to pay the charge.

If a bare trust is used, there are no periodic/exit charges, but there will be issues if the beneficiary dies before the settlor. The policy proceeds would pass via the beneficiary’s estate, but their personal representatives would not have any access until the life assured died.


Where the premiums fall within an exemption they are immediately out of the estate, so assuming they would otherwise be falling into IHT the net ‘cost’ is 60 per cent.

The ideal scenario is for the policyholder to rearrange their assets so that they have sufficient surplus income for the premiums to qualify as normal expenditure out of income. 

Remember that withdrawals from an investment bond cannot count as income for this purpose. 

The exemption applies to the extent it is available – for example, if the premiums were £5,000 a year and the policyholder had £3,000 surplus income, then £3,000 would be immediately exempt and £2,000 would be a CLT or PET. 

Any amount not covered by the surplus income exemption may fall within the annual exempt amount. This exemption applies chronologically to the earliest non-exempt gifts in the tax year. These exemptions are only applicable to the value of the initial gift (and therefore any entry charge); periodic and exit charges still apply in the usual way.