August 01, 2012
A captive insurance company that qualifies for the tax exemption found in section 831(b) of the Internal Revenue Code is a time-tested and useful risk management mechanism that offers the entrepreneur excellent tax and financial planning benefits.
It looks simple — form a small insurance company and pay no more than $1,200,000 in annual premiums to it, which are fully tax-deductible and then later remove the profits of the captive at more favorable dividend (for now) or capital gains rates.
But it is not so simple. There are many pitfalls. Aggressive captive providers have proliferated recently who are ignoring common sense risk management and taxation issues to the potential peril of their clients. And they hide behind actuarial opinions and regulatory acceptance arguing that their plans and pricing are perfectly acceptable.
The problem is that actuarial opinions are only as good as the assumptions that the actuaries are given. And regulators examine different issues than the IRS when they are approving a captive's license. The existence of an actuarial opinion or a license does not assure the client that their captive is truly compliant with the complicated tax issues that are involved.
There are two current "hot buttons" that anyone contemplating forming a captive should consider:
Pricing of Risk: Once the types of risks to be transferred to the captive are identified, the next challenge is to properly calculate the premium for such risk. Underwriting is as much an art as it is a science, with factors such as coverage details, loss history, limits, deductibles, exclusions and the financial strength of the issuing insurance company all coming into play along with sound actuarial practices.
Given these variables, it is easy for different people to offer diverse opinions on what an appropriate premium may be. But common sense must prevail. For tax purposes, the IRS will only allow a deduction for premiums that are reasonable in amount. The starting point for "reasonable" is the market rates for the coverages in question. However, market rates are not the end point for small captives, but they absolutely do create a benchmark. If a taxpayer is considering paying premiums that are vastly beyond that benchmark, they had better have very strong and well documented arguments for doing so.