Over the past 20 years, many small businesses have begun to insure their own risks through a product called “Captive Insurance.” Small captives (also known as single-parent captives) are insurance companies established by the owners of closely held businesses looking to insure risks that are either too costly or too difficult to insure through the traditional insurance marketplace. Brad Barros, an expert in the field of captive insurance, explains how “all captives are treated as corporations and must be managed in a method consistent with rules established with both the IRS and the appropriate insurance regulator.”
According to Barros, often single parent captives are owned by a trust, partnership or other structure established by the premium payer or his family. When properly designed and administered, a business can make tax-deductible premium payments to their related-party insurance company. Depending on circumstances, underwriting profits, if any, can be paid out to the owners as dividends, and profits from liquidation of the company may be taxed at capital gains.
Premium payers and their captives may garner tax benefits only when the captive operates as a real insurance company. Alternatively, advisers and business owners who use captives as estate planning tools, asset protection vehicles, tax deferral or other benefits not related to the true business purpose of an insurance company may face grave regulatory and tax consequences.
Many captive insurance companies are often formed by US businesses in jurisdictions outside of the United States. The reason for this is that foreign jurisdictions offer lower costs and greater flexibility than their US counterparts. As a rule, US businesses can use foreign-based insurance companies so long as the jurisdiction meets the insurance regulatory standards required by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).
There are several notable foreign jurisdictions whose insurance regulations are recognized as safe and effective. These include Bermuda and St. Lucia. Bermuda, while more expensive than other jurisdictions, is home to many of the largest insurance companies in the world. St. Lucia, a more reasonably priced location for smaller captives, is noteworthy for statutes that are both progressive and compliant. St. Lucia is also acclaimed for recently passing “Incorporated Cell” legislation, modeled after similar statutes in Washington, DC.
Common Captive Insurance Abuses; While captives remain highly beneficial to many businesses, some industry professionals have begun to improperly market and misuse these structures for purposes other than those intended by Congress. The abuses include the following:
1. Improper risk shifting and risk distribution, aka “Bogus Risk Pools”
2. High deductibles in captive-pooled arrangements; Re insuring captives through private placement variable life insurance schemes
3. Improper marketing
4. Inappropriate life insurance integration
Meeting the high standards imposed by the IRS and local insurance regulators can be a complex and expensive proposition and should only be done with the assistance of competent and experienced counsel. The ramifications of failing to be an insurance company can be devastating and may include the following penalties:
1. Loss of all deductions on premiums received by the insurance company
2. Loss of all deductions from the premium payer
3. Forced distribution or liquidation of all assets from the insurance company effectuating additional taxes for capital gains or dividends
4. Potential adverse tax treatment as a Controlled Foreign Corporation
5. Potential adverse tax treatment as a Personal Foreign Holding Company (PFHC)
6. Potential regulatory penalties imposed by the insuring jurisdiction
7. Potential penalties and interest imposed by the IRS.
All in all, the tax consequences may be greater than 100% of the premiums paid to the captive. In addition, attorneys, CPA’s wealth advisors and their clients may be treated as tax shelter promoters by the IRS, causing fines as great as $100,000 or more per transaction.
Clearly, establishing a captive insurance company is not something that should be taken lightly. It is critical that businesses seeking to establish a captive work with competent attorneys and accountants who have the requisite knowledge and experience necessary to avoid the pitfalls associated with abusive or poorly designed insurance structures. A general rule of thumb is that a captive insurance product should have a legal opinion covering the essential elements of the program. It is well recognized that the opinion should be provided by an independent, regional or national law firm.
Risk Shifting and Risk Distribution Abuses; Two key elements of insurance are those of shifting risk from the insured party to others (risk shifting) and subsequently allocating risk amongst a large pool of insured’s (risk distribution). After many years of litigation, in 2005 the IRS released a Revenue Ruling (2005-40) describing the essential elements required in order to meet risk shifting and distribution requirements.