By Paul Rickard

In the third and final part of this series, we look at two indirect investment options – insurance bonds and education savings plans.

What is an insurance/investment bond?

Insurance bonds (also called investment bonds) are long-term investment vehicles that offer tax efficiency for some investors. While technically incorporating a life insurance element, they are tax paid investments that focus on wealth creation by investing in single asset (eg. ‘Australian shares’) or multiple asset classes (eg. ‘balanced’).

Insurance bonds are designed to be held for at least 10 years. The issuer of the bond pays tax on the earnings of the underlying investments at the corporate tax rate of 30%, which under a special tax rule, means that the investor does not need to include any investment earnings in his or her tax return. After 10 years, the investor can redeem the insurance bond and won’t be liable for any capital gains tax.

If the investor chooses to redeem the insurance bond before 10 years, he or she is required to pay tax on the earnings of the bond at their marginal tax rate, less a tax offset of 30% to reflect the tax the issuer has already paid. If the bond is redeemed during the 9th or 10th year, transitional provisions apply.

One additional rule (known as the ‘125%’ rule) makes them attractive as savings vehicles. Under this rule, investors can make additional contributions up to 125% of the previous year’s contribution with the benefit of these contributions being treated as if they were invested at the same time as the original investment. For example, if you invested $1,000 to start an insurance bond, you could invest a further $1,250 in year 2 and a further $1,562.50 in year 3 and have, for tax purposes, the same 10 year term expiry being the 10th anniversary of the original $1,000.

How do they work for kids or grandchildren?

If the child is 10 years or over, then with parental consent, the investment can be made directly in the child’s name. The minimum investment for some insurance bonds is as little as $500.

Most insurance bonds also include a ‘child advancement policy’. Under this feature, the investment is initially made in your name and at a certain nominated time (known as the ‘vesting age’), the bond is automatically transferred to the child. Vesting does not trigger any tax consequences, and there are usually no fees or charges. The child must initially be under 16 at the time the policy is taken out, and the vesting age can be any age from 10 years to 25 years old.

Who issues them?

Insurance bonds are issued by life insurance companies. Three of the major issuers and details of their bonds are detailed below:

Pros and cons

As they are tax paid investments, and you can invest in relatively small starting amounts, they are attractive vehicles for investing for your kids or grandchildren. There are no issues with the minor’s ‘unearned income’ tax and in most cases, the tax paid rate of 30% on an insurance bond is going to be more tax effective than the minor’s tax rate of 45%.

The 10-year investment time frame (minimum) will probably not be an issue for most parents or grandparents considering this alternative. Other downsides are the management fee (these range from 1.0% pa to 1.5% pa), buy/sell spreads and unlike direct shares, an insurance bond may not be quite as effective in helping your child or grandchild to develop an interest in investing.

Choosing an insurance bond

If selecting an insurance bond, look at a ‘growth’ oriented option such as ‘Australian shares’ or ‘growth’ – 10 years is a long time. Management fees matter – and as it is impossible to predict who is going to be the best performing manager over this period, apart from any other considerations such as the minimum investment size, consider the issuer with the lowest fee.

Education savings plans

Educations savings plans are designed for saving for tertiary education and can be a tax free way to save.

While they can be accessed to pay for a child’s primary or secondary education expenses, any investment earnings on the savings plan accessed to pay for these education expenses will be treated as taxable income for your child – and potentially be taxed at a minor’s tax rates – up to 68%. However, at age 18, an adult child will enjoy a tax free threshold of $20,542, meaning that investment earnings withdrawn to pay for education expenses will in many cases not incur any tax.

Education savings plans can be set up by a parent or grandparent for a nominated student. Technically, they are classified under the Income Tax Act as a ‘scholarship plan’. This means that they are tax paid investments (the fund pays tax at 30% on any investment earnings), and when those investment earnings are withdrawn to pay for approved education expenses, the tax the fund has paid is refunded to you in full.

Effectively, the fund’s investment earnings, if used to pay for approved education expenses, are tax free. Education expenses include tuition fees, uniform costs, books and living away from home allowance (the latter up to $7,500 pa).

The potential downside is that the investment earnings, when withdrawn to pay for educational expenses, are treated as taxable income for your child.

Lifeplan Education Investment Plan

The ‘Lifeplan Education Investment Fund’ is one of only 2 education savings plans in Australia (the other is provided by ASG). Lifeplan is part of the Australian Unity group, and offers these plans with 16 different investment options. The initial contribution starts at just $1,000.

Every Lifeplan education plan comprises two components. The ‘Investor Contributions’ account records the balance of investor contributions, and can be withdrawn (tax free) at any time for any purpose.

The second component represents the ‘education benefits’. This comprises the ’investor earnings account’ (that is, the earnings on the investor contributions), plus the ‘tax benefit’. The tax benefit is only available when investor earnings are withdrawn to pay for educational expenses, and can be worth an additional $30 for every $70 of earnings withdrawn.

If the earnings are not used for education purposes, the plan is treated like an insurance bond for taxation purposes (see above). If the plan had been in place for more than 10 years, withdrawal proceeds are not taxable.

Management fees on the 16 options vary between 0.95% pa for a cash option to 1.82% pa, and are typically around 1.65% pa.

Be careful with education savings plans

Education savings plans haven’t been very successful in Australia because they are complex, and only work well from a taxation perspective if your child/grandchild is going onto university. With management fees on the high side, they are not good vehicles to save for education expenses for a child under 18.

As a ‘set and forget’ investment they are okay – you just need a long time horizon for your child/grandchild.