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How Does Captive Insurance Work and What are the Benefits?

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Common Misconceptions About Captive Insurance

Captive insurance and the way firms advertise it can seem mysterious. In reality, captives are not all that different from self-insuring. By creating and owning its own captive insurance company, any firm can insure the health risks and other unknown expenses of their employees. In doing so, firms reap countless benefits, from greater flexibility in risk management to earning additional income through the savings and interest accrued from the captive. There is a host of misunderstandings that surround captive insurance companies. We’ll look into common false impressions and help you separate reality from myth.  

Are captives only worthwhile for large companies?

Decades ago, the IRS tax code for captive insurance companies, 831(a), was geared towards large corporations with annual premiums over $2.3 million. More recently, however, tax code 831(b) was created to acknowledge the growing middle-market and encourage small and midsize companies to participate in captives. Known as the “micro-captive” tax election, 831(b) is available to businesses that collect $1.2 million or less in underwriting profit. Under this election, insurance companies enjoy a 0% tax rate on their underwriting profits. While historically it might have been the case, it’s no longer true that large corporations are the only ones who can benefit from forming a captive.

With declining capital requirements and operating costs, captives are now accessible to smaller companies. Online platforms enable many companies to get off the ground using limited capital, which frees up potential resources that they can use toward a captive. Given the volatility of a small private company, where a single catastrophe can lead to ruin, and there are no shareholders to fall back on, captives are an excellent way to build up capital and allow business owners to manage their risk.

Nevertheless, it’s always important to make sure captive insurance is a good fit for an individual company. A substantial amount of initial capital is required to ensure financial stability during a crisis and have an adequate amount of reserves available. For this reason, a common practice for small and midsize companies is to band together in a coalition of several employers. By doing so, they can mimic the volume of a large company and engage in risk-sharing while enjoying all the benefits of captive insurance.

Are captive insurance companies main goal to lowering taxes?

Even though much of the discussion on captives is about tax breaks, this legal aspect is just a single piece of the puzzle. Every business owner has their own set of reasons for starting a captive insurance company, and being tax-advantaged is only one of them. Some of the many reasons a company might open a captive are:

Improved risk management: By building up a reserve of cash through a captive, companies can design it to pay whichever costs they desire. No more random fluctuations in the insurance market – with a captive, you get a fully transparent view of your risks and claims, and you decide how best to manage them.

New revenue streams: Not only do you get to see where the money’s going when you have your own captive insurance company, but you also get to recapture the profits that outside insurance carriers would typically enjoy. You even get to keep all of the income accrued from savings and interest, meaning a captive can eventually start making money for a company rather than purely being an expense.

Access to reinsurance markets: While a single captive alone can only provide a limited amount of coverage, it can access the reinsurance market to underwrite its risk. Reinsurance providers offer increased coverage capacity and are less costly than attaining reinsurance through a commercial carrier.

A centralized platform for managing diverse risk operations: a captive can serve as a streamlined information center for managing different risks from various areas of a business. That way, companies can use innovative strategies like transferring risk from one balance sheet to another, which allow them to exert more control over their financial resources.

Coverage for special risks and government programs, such as equipment failure, pollution liability, and terrorism insurance, which are generally unavailable and/or unaffordable in traditional commercial markets.

Do Captives Suffer from Negative PR?

Despite media hype around the captive-related practices of Fortune 500 companies, well-regulated captives are legitimate, compliant insurance companies. While some captives are indeed located in foreign countries like Bermuda and the Cayman Islands, an increasing portion are being established domestically, especially in Vermont, Utah, and Delaware. News outlets often highlight big-name companies who were found to be using offshore accounts as tax shelters, albeit in a lawful manner. It would be misinformed to view captive formation through the lens of big-business financial practices, however. While they offer good fuel for sensationalized headlines, they are not a good representation of a captive’s true purpose.

Captives operate under the Internal Revenue Code sections 831(b), 831(a) and 501(c)(15), allowing their owners to be recognized as U.S. taxpayers. In reality, there is nothing “phony” about a captive insurance company that is formed legitimately under the US tax code. Therefore, the IRS will not crack down on a fully-compliant and well-managed captive unless they find a legitimate reason to hold them accountable.

Captive Myths Busted!

The bottom line on captive insurance is that it gives a business full control, transparency, and profit when it comes to their risk management. They are certainly not exclusive to large firms, solely a tax savings tool, or illegal by any measure.

Captives are pushing companies of all sizes to look inwards and ask themselves, “do you own your risk?” If not, it probably means that a third-party insurance carrier is profiting from it. They empower business owners to control their company risk, instead of paying an insurance firm to do who-knows-what with their premium dollars. Once businesses see their risks and claims as clear as day, they’ll notice the pitfalls in their employee’s spending decisions, such as choosing providers that overcharge them and not “shopping healthcare procedures”. Using a captive means they will have the information and flexibility to do something about it. They can nudge employees to better care options, and pinpoint areas for improvement.

At the end of the day, it’s a story about incentives. Large insurance carriers have an incentive to increase premiums and earn profits in the process. Your business, however, has the incentive to control costs and help your employees make better healthcare decisions for their health and finances. Now, no misconceptions will stop you from doing what’s right for your company.


Want to learn more? Watch a great video by Andrew Clayton, President – Pareto Captive Services at Cypress U

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