June 14, 2015
How to Prevent IRS Issues for Captives
by James Landis
Domiciles have no responsibility to consider federal tax issues when licensing captives -- but they should do so anyway.
A regulator of captive insurance is responsible for many aspects of the business of captive insurance companies. He or she must coordinate the application process for obtaining a license, including the financial analysis and financial examination of each captive insurance company. The regulator is also a key marketing person in promoting the domicile as a favorable place to do business, thus fostering economic development for the state.
The captive regulator is not, however, a tax adviser. No statute and regulation in any domestic domicile requires an analysis of the potential tax status of the captives under consideration or under regulation. If the application complies with the stated statutory and regulatory requirements, the regulator must favorably consider the application and allow the new company to be licensed as an insurance company under state law.
That new insurance company may not, however, be considered an insurance company under federal tax law. The Internal Revenue Service recently listed captives as one of their annual “Dirty Dozen” tax scams, citing “esoteric or improbable risks for exorbitant premiums.” And at least seven captive managers (and therefore their clients) have been targeted for “promoter” audits, for allegedly promoting abusive tax transactions.
Yet all of these captives received a license from a regulator, mostly in the U.S. Obviously these regulators did not consider the pricing of the risks to be transferred to the captive, except perhaps at the macro level.
Should the domicile care about the potential tax status of licensed captives? David Provost, Vermont’s Deputy Commissioner of Captive Insurance, has said, “We do not license Section 831(b) captives; we license insurance companies.” While that statement is technically correct, this paper argues that, with respect to small captives, regulators should care about the tax implications of licenses in extreme cases, consistent, of course, with the laws and regulations under which it operates.
Small captives, i.e. those with annual premiums of no more than $1.2 million, can elect under section 831(b) of the Internal Revenue Code to have their insurance income exempt from federal taxation. This provision, combined with certain revenue rulings and case law, creates a strong tax and financial planning incentive to form such a captive insurance company.
This incentive can lead to an “over-pricing” of premiums being paid to the new captive, to maximize the tax benefits on offer. The premiums may be “over-priced” relative to market rates, even after being adjusted for the breadth of policy form, size and age of the insurance company and, in some cases, the uniqueness of the risk being insured by the captive. But “over-priced” in whose eyes?
Insurance regulators are usually more concerned with whether enough premium is being paid to a captive to meet its policy obligations. From that perspective, “too much” premium can never be a bad thing. Indeed, captive statutes and regulations generally use the standard of being “able to meet policy obligations” as the basis of evaluating captive applications or conducting financial reviews. And actuarial studies provided with captive applications generally conclude that “…the level of capitalization plus premiums will provide sufficient funds to cover expected underwriting results.”
These actuarial studies do not usually include a rate analysis, by risk, because none is required by captive statute or regulation.
Small “831(b)” captives, therefore, may easily satisfy the financial requirements set forth in captive statutes and regulations. If, however, the Internal Revenue Service finds on audit that the premiums paid to that captive are “unreasonable,” then the insured and the captive manager may face additional taxes and penalties, and the captive may be dissolved, to the loss of the domicile.
And, as has happened recently, the IRS may believe that a particular captive manager has consistently over-priced the risk being transferred to its captives and may initiate a “promoter” audit, covering all of those captives. Such an action could result in unfavorable publicity to the domiciles that approved those captive applications, regardless of the fact that the regulators were following their own rules and regulations to the letter.
It is that risk of broad bad publicity that should encourage regulators to temper the rush to license as many captives as possible. There should be some level of concern for the “reasonableness” of the premiums being paid to the captives.
One helpful step would be to change captive statutes or regulations to require that actuarial feasibility studies include a detailed rate analysis. Such an analysis would compare proposed premium rates with those of the marketplace and offer specific justifications for any large deviations from market. (Given the competition among jurisdictions for captive business, such a change would only be possible if every domicile acted together, eliminating the fear that a domicile would lose its competitive edge by acting alone.)
Absent such a change, however, regulators still have the power to stop applications that do not pass the “smell test.” Most captive statutes require each applicant to file evidence of the “overall soundness” of its plan of operation, which would logically include its proposed premiums. If the premiums seem unreasonably high for the risks being assumed, the plan of operation may not be “sound,” in that it might face adverse results upon an IRS audit.
Regulators are not actuaries and often have had little or no underwriting experience. They, therefore, could not and should not “nit-pick” a particular premium or coverage. But some applications may be so egregious on their face that even non-insurance people can legitimately question the efficacy of the captive’s business plan.
Insurance professionals know from both experience and nationally published studies that the cost of risk for most companies is less than 2% of revenue. “Cost of risk” includes losses not covered by traditional third-party insurance, which are generally the type of losses covered by “small” captive insurance companies.
If a captive regulator receives an application in which the “cost” of coverage by that captive is, say, 10% to 12% or more of the revenue of the insured, alarm bells should go off. That captive certainly would have plenty of assets to cover its policy obligations! But in the overall scheme of things, including the real world of taxation, that business plan is not likely “sound.”
At that point, the regulator has a choice of rejecting the applicant, requiring a change in the business plan/premiums or demanding additional support for the proposed plan. We are aware of one case in which the captive regulator required the applicant to provide a rate analysis from an independent actuary when he received an application whose premiums did not appear reasonable.
A rate analysis is not, of course, a guarantee that the IRS will find the premiums acceptable on audit. No one can expect guarantees, but a properly done rate analysis has a better chance of assuring all the parties that the captive has been properly formed as a real insurance company and not simply as a way to reduce the taxable income of the insured and its owners.
Captive insurance regulators have a big job, particularly as the pace of captive formations increases. To protect the domicile from appearing on the front page of the Wall Street Journal, the regulator must consider all aspects of the proposed captive’s business, including, in extreme cases, its vulnerability to adverse federal tax rulings.