Some of the most effective estate planning strategies involve setting up irrevocable trusts. For a trust to be deemed irrevocable, you, the grantor, lose all incidents of ownership of the trust’s assets. In other words, you’re effectively removing those assets from your taxable estate.
But what if you’re uncomfortable placing your assets beyond your control? What happens if your financial fortunes take a turn for the worse after you’ve irrevocably transferred a sizable portion of your wealth? This may be an especially pertinent question in light of the current economic downturn resulting from the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
If you’re married, and feel as though your marriage is strong, a spousal lifetime access trust (SLAT) allows you to obtain the benefits of an irrevocable trust while creating a financial backup plan.
A SLAT in action
A SLAT is simply an irrevocable trust that authorizes the trustee to make distributions to your spouse if needs arise. Like other irrevocable trusts, a SLAT can be designed to benefit your children, grandchildren or future generations. You can use your lifetime gift tax and generation-skipping transfer tax exemptions (currently, $11.58 million each) to shield contributions to the trust, as well as future appreciation, from transfer taxes. And the trust assets also receive some protection against claims by your beneficiaries’ creditors, including any former spouses.
The key benefit of a SLAT is that by naming your spouse as a lifetime beneficiary you retain indirect access to the trust assets. You can set up the trust to make distributions based on an “ascertainable standard” — such as your spouse’s health, education, maintenance or support — or you can give the trustee full discretion to distribute income or principal to your spouse.
To keep the trust assets out of your taxable estate, you must not act as trustee. You can appoint your spouse as trustee, but only if distributions are limited to an ascertainable standard. If you desire greater flexibility over distributions to your spouse, appoint an independent trustee. Also, the trust document must prohibit distributions in satisfaction of your legal support obligations.
Another critical requirement is to fund the trust with your separate property. If you use marital or community property, there’s a risk that the trust assets will end up in your spouse’s estate.
Understand the pitfalls
There’s a significant risk inherent in the SLAT strategy: If your spouse predeceases you, or if you and your spouse divorce, you’ll lose your indirect access to the trust assets. One way to mitigate this risk is to use dual SLATs. In other words, you and your spouse each establish an irrevocable trust using your separate property and naming each other as lifetime beneficiaries.
If you’re considering using a SLAT, or would like to learn about other estate planning strategies, contact us to learn more about the benefits and risks.
© 2020 Covenant CPA
You may have several different types of trusts in your estate plan. In general, to achieve the greatest tax savings, these trusts must be irrevocable, thus requiring you to give up control over the trust assets.
Even though you appoint a trustee to oversee distribution of the trust’s assets, you can go a step further by appointing a trust protector. This person will serve as an overseer of the trustee’s actions. Taking this step can also provide you peace of mind because the trust protector has the power to alter the trust in light of changing family situations or tax laws.
Essentially, a trust protector is to a trustee what a corporate board of directors is to a CEO. A trustee manages the trust on a day-to-day basis. The protector oversees the trustee and weighs in on critical decisions, such as the sale of closely held business interests or investment transactions involving large dollar amounts.
You can confer broad powers on a trust protector. Examples include the power to:
- Remove or replace a trustee,
- Appoint a successor trustee or successor trust protector,
- Amend the trust terms to correct administrative provisions, clarify ambiguous language or alter beneficiaries’ interests to comply with new laws or reflect changed circumstances, and
- Terminate the trust.
While it may be tempting to provide a protector with a broad range of powers, it’s important to note that this can hamper the trustee’s ability to manage the trust efficiently.
Trust protector in action
Trust protectors offer many benefits. For example, a protector with the power to remove and replace the trustee can do so if the trustee develops a conflict of interest or fails to manage the trust assets in the beneficiaries’ best interests.
A protector with the power to modify the trust’s terms can correct mistakes in the trust document or clarify ambiguous language.
Choosing the right person
Appointing the right trust protector is critical. Given the power he or she has over your family’s wealth, you’ll want to choose someone whom you trust and who’s qualified to make investment and other financial decisions.
Many people appoint a trusted advisor — such as an accountant, attorney or investment advisor — who may not be able or willing to serve as trustee but who can provide an extra layer of protection by monitoring the trustee’s performance.
Choosing a family member as protector is possible, but it can be risky. If the protector is a beneficiary or has the power to direct the trust assets to him- or herself (or for his or her benefit), this power could be treated as a general power of appointment, exposing the protector to gift and estate tax liability and potentially triggering other negative tax consequences.
Due diligence is a must
Before deciding on appointing a trust protector, contact us. It’s important to review the trusts in your estate plan to ensure they’re drafted in such a way that there are no misunderstandings regarding the protector’s role and the authority you grant him or her.
© 2020 Covenant CPA
The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act created a new program to encourage investment in economically distressed areas through generous tax incentives. The Qualified Opportunity Zone (QOZ) program relies on investments in Qualified Opportunity Funds (QOFs) — funds that can provide wealthy taxpayers with some new avenues for estate planning.
3 big tax benefits
Investors in QOFs stand to reap three significant tax breaks:
- They can defer capital gains on the disposition of appreciated property by reinvesting the gains in a QOF within 180 days of disposition. The tax is deferred until the QOF investment is sold or Dec. 31, 2026, whichever is earlier.
- Depending on how long they hold their QOF investment, they can eliminate 10% to 15% of the tax.
- After 10 years, post-acquisition appreciation on the investment is tax-exempt.
By incorporating QOFs in your estate planning, you can reduce both capital gains and transfer tax liabilities.
Estate planning implications
Proposed regulations make clear that a QOF investor’s death isn’t an “inclusion event” that would trigger tax on the deferred gains. In addition, most of the activities involved in administering an estate or trust (for example, transferring the interest to the estate or distributing the interest) won’t trigger the gain. But the sale of the QOF interest by the estate, the trust or a beneficiary would. Gifts of QOF interests also are generally considered inclusion events that make the deferred gains immediately taxable.
You could avoid this, though, by gifting your interest to a grantor trust. Both revocable living trusts and irrevocable grantor trusts qualify. However, transfers to the latter are completed gifts and therefore produce greater potential tax savings in situations where the income and gains of the trust are taxed to the grantor, in turn reducing the grantor’s estate by the amount of income taxes paid. (Note, though, that the termination of grantor trust status for reasons other than the grantor’s death is treated as an inclusion event.)
For example, you could transfer a highly appreciated asset to an irrevocable trust with no gift tax under the federal gift and estate tax exemption ($11.40 million for 2019 and $11.58 million for 2020). The trust could sell the asset and defer the gains into a QOF investment.
Another option for transferring QOF interests is the grantor retained annuity trust (GRAT), which allows you to make a gift to a trust and receive an annuity interest roughly equal to the fair market value of the gift. Any appreciation beyond the amount required to pay the annuity also passes to the beneficiaries without gift tax.
Contact us for additional information.
© 2019 Covenant CPA
The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) reduced individual income tax rates, but it left the 3.8% net investment income tax (NIIT) in place. It’s important to address the NIIT in your estate plan, because it can erode your earnings from interest, dividends, capital gains and other investments, leaving less for your heirs.
How it works
The NIIT applies to individuals with modified adjusted gross income (MAGI) over $200,000. The threshold is $250,000 for joint filers and qualifying widows or widowers and $125,000 for married taxpayers filing separately. The tax is equal to 3.8% of 1) your net investment income, or 2) the amount by which your MAGI exceeds the threshold, whichever is less.
Suppose, for example, that you’re married filing jointly and you have $350,000 in MAGI. Presuming $125,000 in net investment income, your NIIT is 3.8% of $100,000 (the excess of your MAGI over the threshold, which is less than your net investment income), or $3,800.
Nongrantor trusts — with limited exceptions — are also subject to the NIIT, and at a much lower threshold: For 2019, the tax applies to the lesser of 1) the trust’s undistributed net investment income or 2) the amount by which the trust’s AGI exceeds $12,751.
Reducing the tax
You can reduce or eliminate the NIIT by lowering your MAGI, lowering your net investment income, or both. Techniques for doing so include:
- Reducing this year’s MAGI by deferring income, accelerating expenses or maxing out contributions to retirement accounts,
- Selling poor-performing investments to offset the losses against investment gains you’ve realized during the year, or
- Reducing net investment income by investing in tax-exempt municipal bonds or in growth stocks that generate little or no current income.
If you own an interest in a business, you may be able to reduce NIIT by increasing your level of participation. Income from a business in which you “materially participate” isn’t considered net investment income. (But keep in mind that increasing your participation may, in certain cases, trigger self-employment tax liability.)
For trusts, you can reduce or eliminate the NIIT by:
- Structuring them as grantor trusts,
- Distributing the trust’s income to its beneficiaries (remember, the NIIT applies only to undistributed income), or
- Shifting the trust’s investments into tax-exempt municipal bonds, growth stocks or tax-deferred investments (such as life insurance).
Keep in mind that, if you use a grantor trust, its income will be passed through to you as grantor, potentially increasing your personal liability for NIIT.
Review your plan
The NIIT can affect the financial performance of your personal investments as well as your trusts. To maximize the amount of wealth available for your heirs, be sure to consider strategies for reducing the impact of this tax. Contact us with any questions.
© 2019 Covenant CPA
The right estate planning strategy for you likely is the one that will produce the greatest tax savings for your family. Unfortunately, there can be tension between strategies that save estate tax and ones that save income tax. This is especially true now that the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act nearly doubled the gift and estate tax exemption — but only temporarily. Through 2025, income tax might be a greater concern, but, after that, estate taxes might be a bigger issue.
Fortunately, it’s possible to build an “on-off switch” into your estate plan.
Why the conflict?
Generally, the best way to minimize estate taxes is to remove assets from your estate as early as possible (through outright gifts or gifts in trust) so that all future appreciation in value escapes estate tax. But these lifetime gifts can increase income taxes for the recipients of appreciated assets. That’s because assets you transfer by gift retain your tax basis, potentially resulting in a significant capital gains tax bill should your beneficiaries sell them.
Assets held for life, on the other hand, receive a stepped-up basis equal to their fair market value on the date of death. This provides an income tax advantage: Your beneficiaries can turn around and sell the assets with little or no capital gains tax liability.
Until relatively recently, estate planning strategies focused on minimizing estate taxes, with little regard for income taxes. Why? Historically, the highest marginal estate tax rate was significantly higher than the highest marginal income tax rate, and the estate tax exemption amount was relatively small. So, in most cases, the potential estate tax savings far outweighed any potential income tax liability.
Today, the stakes have changed. The highest marginal estate and income tax rates aren’t too different (40% and 37%, respectively). And, the gift and estate tax exemption has climbed to $11.40 million for 2019, meaning fewer taxpayers need to be concerned about estate taxes, at least for now.
Flipping the switch
With a carefully designed trust, you can remove assets from your taxable estate while giving the trustee the ability to direct the assets back into your estate should that prove to be the better tax strategy in the future. There are different techniques for accomplishing this, but typically it involves establishing an irrevocable trust over which you retain no control (including the right to replace the trustee) and giving the trustee complete discretion over distributions. This removes the assets from your taxable estate.
If it becomes desirable to include the trust assets in your estate because income taxes are a bigger concern, the trustee can accomplish this by, for example, naming you as successor trustee or granting you a power of appointment over the trust assets.
Of course, irrevocable trusts also have their downsides. Contact us to discuss what estate planning strategies make the most sense for you. Call us at 205-345-9898 or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
© 2019 Covenant CPA
With the federal gift and estate tax exemption at $11.40 million for 2019, people whose estates are below the exemption amount are shifting their focus to income tax reduction. High-income taxpayers — particularly those who live in high-income-tax states — may want to consider incomplete nongrantor trusts, which make it possible to eliminate state taxes on trust income.
Defining an incomplete nongrantor trust
Generally, trusts are classified as either grantor trusts or nongrantor trusts. In a grantor trust, you, as “grantor,” establish the trust and retain certain powers over it. You’re treated as the trust’s owner for income tax purposes and pay taxes on income generated by the trust assets.
In a nongrantor trust, you relinquish certain controls over the trust so that you aren’t considered the owner for income tax purposes. Instead, the trust becomes a separate legal entity, with income tax responsibility shifting to the trust itself. By setting up the trust in a no-income-tax state (typically by having it administered by a trust company located in that state), it’s possible to avoid state income taxes.
Ordinarily, when you contribute assets to a nongrantor trust you make a taxable gift to the trust beneficiaries. By structuring the trust as an incomplete nongrantor trust, you can avoid triggering gift taxes, or tapping your gift and estate tax exemption. This requires relinquishing just enough control to ensure nongrantor status, while retaining enough control so that transfers to the trust aren’t considered completed gifts for gift-tax purposes.
Analyzing the benefits
Although the trust will allow you to receive distributions, assets you place in the trust should produce income that you don’t need. If you take money out, trust taxable income could follow to you and be taxed in your state of residence.
Incomplete nongrantor trusts aren’t right for everyone. It depends on your particular circumstances and the tax laws in your home state.
While this strategy can produce significant state income tax savings, it may increase federal income taxes, depending on your individual tax bracket. Nongrantor trusts pay federal income taxes at the highest marginal rate (currently, 37%) once income reaches $12,700 for 2019, while the 37% rate threshold is $612,350 for married couples filing jointly and $510,300 for singles and heads of households. If you’re not in the 37% bracket, the increased federal income taxes the incomplete nongrantor trust would pay might outweigh the state income tax savings.
Also, if federal estate taxes aren’t a concern now but could be in the future — such as if your estate could exceed the estate tax exemption when it drops to an inflation-adjusted $5 million in 2026, as currently scheduled — be sure to consider the potential estate tax consequences. Incomplete gifts remain in your estate for estate tax purposes.
Is it right for you?
To determine whether an incomplete nongrantor trust is right for you, weigh the potential state income tax savings against the potential federal estate and income tax costs. Contact us with any questions at 205-345-9898.
© 2018 Covenant CPA