Life Insurance Trusts Explained

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Picture of By <span>Matthew Roberts</span>
By Matthew Roberts

Updated on February 29, 2024

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Picture of By <span>Matthew Roberts</span>
By Matthew Roberts

Updated February 29, 2024

Visit author page

5 minute read

Article Contents
Life Insurance Trusts: A Comprehensive Guide

Life insurance encompasses many strategies designed to secure the financial well-being of one’s beneficiaries. A life insurance policy offers a direct method to give your beneficiaries a cash lump sum for living expenses and significant costs. However, to manage the usage and timing of your life insurance benefits, you’ll require an additional tool called a life insurance trust. This guide aims to elucidate the concept of life insurance trusts, emphasizing their utility, structure, and the strategic considerations involved in their establishment.

Definition and Purpose of a Life Insurance Trust

Canadian households typically have an average life insurance coverage of $458,000. The optimal amount of coverage depends on personal, familial, and lifestyle requirements. A life insurance trust is a strategic financial instrument that allows the policy owner to manage the distribution of these proceeds with precision and according to specific timelines. This type of trust involves a third party, known as the trustee, who is tasked with safeguarding and administering the assets within the trust to benefit one or more named beneficiaries. Upon establishing a life insurance trust, ownership of the policy is transferred to the trust, removing it from the policy owner’s direct control. This ensures that upon the owner’s death, the trustee is responsible for allocating the policy’s proceeds to the beneficiaries as the trust document dictates. Here’s a breakdown of the three key roles of a life insurance trust:

  • The Grantor: The individual establishing the trust and funding it with a life insurance policy.
  • The Trustee: The entity or individual tasked with managing the trust’s assets and executing the grantor’s directives. There can be multiple trustees appointed to a trust. Selecting a trustee is a critical decision, as this individual or institution will manage the trust’s assets, invest the proceeds, and distribute them to the beneficiaries per the trust agreement. The trustee must possess financial acumen and a profound understanding of the grantor’s objectives and the beneficiaries’ needs.
  • The Beneficiaries: The individuals or entities designated to receive the trust’s benefits according to the grantor’s stipulations. They can be revocable or irrevocable.

This arrangement offers enhanced control over the distribution of insurance benefits, especially useful when beneficiaries are minors and provides flexibility not available outside the trust framework.

Selection Between Revocable and Irrevocable Trusts

  • Revocable Trusts: These trusts offer the grantor the flexibility to modify the trust’s terms or revoke it entirely. However, the assets within a revocable trust are considered part of the grantor’s estate for tax purposes.
  • Irrevocable Trusts: These trusts cannot be altered or revoked once established, offering distinct advantages regarding estate tax mitigation and creditor protection.

How Do Life Insurance Trusts Work?

A life insurance trust is established with the proceeds from a life insurance policy. This can be done by the policyholder creating the trust and then purchasing a life insurance policy or transferring an existing policy into the trust. The individual who holds the policy, the grantor, selects a trustee and sets the conditions under which the trust operates. When the policyholder passes away, the proceeds are allocated in line with the trust’s stipulations. Should the trust be revocable, the grantor can modify or dissolve the trust as desired. Conversely, an irrevocable trust lacks this level of adaptability, locking in the established terms.

Setting Up Life Insurance Trusts in Canada

In Canada, life insurance trusts can be established in various ways, each serving a distinct purpose.

  • Separate Trust Agreement: This independent contract specifies trustees, beneficiaries, and trust terms. The complexity can vary from straightforward to intricate, depending on how you wish to distribute the death benefit, like at specific ages or life events. Drafted by a lawyer, it becomes irrevocable upon death, ensuring the death benefit bypasses the estate and avoids probate or creditor claims.
  • Insurance Trust within a Will: This approach integrates the trust into your will, avoiding direct estate inclusion and protecting the death benefit from taxes and creditors. It involves instructing the will’s executor to form a separate trust, safeguarding the death benefit from estate taxes and keeping it distinct from other assets. This can be established or modified when creating or updating a will. Learn more about a will and its beneficiaries here.
  • Hybrid Method – Designating a Beneficiary: The simplest method uses the beneficiary designation form to establish the trust, requiring an existing will. The policy owner names a trustee on the form and then distributes the insurance proceeds according to the will’s trust provisions. This method, best suited for straightforward needs like direct payouts to a spouse, also allows for more complex distributions referenced in the will. Note, however, that this approach is not applicable in Quebec due to the Civil Code’s trust regulations.

Each method requires careful consideration and, often, legal assistance to ensure your life insurance policy and the trust align with your estate planning goals and legal requirements. According to the statistics, over eighty percent of life insurance policies are acquired by individuals via an agent or advisor.

Pros & Cons of Employing a Life Insurance Trust

A life insurance trust offers control over the distribution of death benefits, yet it may not suit everyone. Understanding its advantages and disadvantages is crucial in deciding whether it’s the right option for you.


  • Tax Advantages: An effectively structured life insurance trust can significantly reduce or eliminate estate taxes on the insurance proceeds.
  • Control Over Asset Distribution: The grantor can dictate the precise terms under which beneficiaries will receive assets, allowing for staged distributions or conditions tailored to the grantor’s wishes.
  • Asset Protection: The trust structure offers protection against creditors and ensures that the estate’s assets are directed toward the beneficiaries rather than being used to settle the grantor’s debts.
  • Protection for Minors: Ensures minors receive their inheritance when they reach legal age, without direct control over the funds.
  • Support for Special-Needs Beneficiaries: Allows special-needs beneficiaries to receive benefits without affecting their eligibility for government programs.


  • Additional Costs: Involves fees for setting up a trust agreement or incorporating it within a will.
  • Complex Planning Required: Necessitates careful planning for appointing trustees and defining terms of distribution.
Pros & Cons of Employing a Life Insurance Trust

Choosing Insurance for a Trust Setup

Whole life insurance is often recommended for establishing a life insurance trust due to its indefinite coverage period and consistent death benefits. Term life insurance, which expires after a certain period, may leave the trust without assets to distribute once the term concludes. Universal life insurance, offering lifetime coverage, presents variability in death benefits that could risk underfunding the trust. Contrary to the perception that trusts are solely for the affluent or those with complex estates, anyone looking to manage how their beneficiaries access insurance proceeds can find value in setting up a trust.

Setting Up a Life Insurance Trust: A Simplified Guide

To establish a life insurance trust, follow these streamlined steps:

  1. Choose Your Trust Type: Choose a revocable or irrevocable trust based on your estate size and tax minimization goals. An irrevocable trust is often preferred for larger estates to reduce estate taxes.
  2. Draft a Trust Document: This essential legal document outlines the trust’s structure, including the grantor, trustee, beneficiaries, and distribution instructions for the trust’s assets.
  3. Assess Your Coverage Needs: Your life insurance coverage should reflect your personal and financial circumstances. Those with significant responsibilities, such as a large family or mortgage, will require more coverage. 
  4. Select the Appropriate Life Insurance: Whole life insurance is generally recommended for trusts due to its permanence and guaranteed benefits. However, term life insurance may be considered for cost-effectiveness despite its expiration risk. To better understand what coverage suits your needs best, check out our article comparing these two types of life insurance. 
  5. Purchase the Policy: Shop around to compare premiums and ensure you obtain the best value.
  6. Transfer Policy Ownership to the Trust: Finalize the process by legally transferring your policy’s ownership to the trust, likely with the assistance of an estate lawyer, to ensure compliance and accuracy.

Upon completion, the trust assumes responsibility for premium payments, policy management, and benefit distribution according to the established terms. Most claims are resolved within 30 to 60 days post-submission, but the time frame can vary.

Setting up a life insurance trust: a simplified guide

The Bottom Line

Life insurance trusts offer a mechanism for estate planning that combines tax efficiency, control over asset distribution, and creditor protection. By integrating a life insurance trust into one’s estate plan, the grantor can achieve precision and security in managing and distributing their legacy. It is imperative for individuals considering this estate planning tool to consult with legal and financial professionals to tailor the trust to their specific needs and objectives.

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