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This blog originally appeared on the Plainly Legal Blog.
Our prior posts have focused solely on Living, or Revocable, Trusts. However, as a client’s assets increase so does the potential complexity of their estate plan. A frequent concern of higher net worth clients is the prospect of paying estate taxes on the assets they choose to leave to their beneficiaries. Due to the present large estate tax lifetime exclusion of $5,120,000.00 (due to expire on December 31, 2012), planning strategies that address this concern have become less common in the past decade. However, for those clients with a net worth large enough to create an estate tax liability (a group that could increase in size dramatically should the Lifetime Exclusion decline to $1,000,000 or some other amount in 2013) the Irrevocable Life Insurance Trust may be a valuable tool. The greatest benefit of the Irrevocable Life Insurance Trust its ability to provide liquidity and finance a fund to offset expected estate taxes.
The Irrevocable Trust
An "Irrevocable Life Insurance Trust" is a Trust designed to have as its only asset a life insurance policy on the life of a Grantor or a Grantor and his or her Spouse. It is drafted to provide that the proceeds from the insurance policy will not be a part of the Grantor's estate upon death and will pass to beneficiaries income tax-free. If the Grantor owns an insurance policy and retains control over the policy, then the proceeds from that policy are included in the Grantor's estate even if the proceeds from that policy are payable to someone other than the Grantor. For example, if the Grantor owns a $1,000,000.00 policy, and dies, that policy will be includable in the Grantor's estate and be subject to federal estate tax (taxed at a 35% rate this year and potentially a 50% rate next year), if the Grantor's estate exceeds the Lifetime Exclusion. If the Irrevocable Trust owns the $1,000,000.00 life insurance policy, and the Grantor dies, the policy proceeds are not includable in the Grantor's estate and will not be subject to the estate tax.
The Irrevocable Life Insurance Trust is commonly part of an estate plan when the Grantor's estate exceeds the value of the Lifetime Exclusion and there will be taxes owed at the time of the Grantor's death. Rather than having the taxes paid on a dollar for dollar basis from the Grantor's estate, an Irrevocable Life Insurance Trust holds an insurance policy and receives the proceeds from that policy. Those proceeds offset the taxes paid to the federal government and are distributed to the beneficiaries pursuant to the terms of the Irrevocable Trust, which may be the same or different from the terms of the Grantor’s Living Trust. The benefit to the estate comes from the fact that the cost of the annual insurance premiums are a fraction of the cost of the taxes paid on a dollar for dollar basis from the estate.
In situations where the estate exceeds the value of the Lifetime Exclusion, an Irrevocable Life Insurance Trust is a good strategy. However, many of my clients are reluctant initially because of their lack of knowledge of life insurance policies and premiums costs. I suggest they consider this strictly from an economic standpoint. If the payment of the premiums will reduce their lifestyle, do they really want to give their children a greater lifestyle at the expense of their own inconvenience? However, the reality for most clients considering this technique is that the payment of premiums will come from excess assets, not assets otherwise used to support a client's lifestyle, and therefore the decision to use an Irrevocable Life Insurance Trust becomes an easier one.
A second use of an Irrevocable Life Insurance Trust is to provide for the needs of a special needs child while preserving any existing government benefits. The proceeds of the life insurance policy held by the Irrevocable Trust are used as appropriate for the child while the remainder of the Grantor's assets can benefit the Grantor's other beneficiaries. When used for this purpose the Trust will include language to ensure that distribution of the proceeds occurs at the Trustee's complete discretion so that the funds are used in addition to and not in lieu of any government benefits. In a similar fashion, an Irrevocable Trust can protect a second spouse by providing funds for him/her while distributing the rest of the Grantor's estate to children of prior marriage. In the alternative, the Irrevocable Trust can protect the Grantor's children by guaranteeing a specified amount, with the remainder the estate going to a second spouse or other beneficiaries.
The Insurance Policy
In order to ensure that the insurance policy is not included in the Grantor's estate, the Grantor must first execute the Irrevocable Life Insurance Trust and then the Trustee of the Trust applies for the policy on behalf of the Trust. It is important to use a new insurance policy to fund the Trust, because if an existing policy on the life of the Grantor is transferred to the Trust, and the Grantor dies within three years of the transfer, the insurance policy is considered part of the estate of the Grantor and subject to the estate tax. If at the time the Trust is established, the Grantor is not insurable and an existing policy must be used, as long as the Grantor survives for three years the policy will not be included in the Grantor's estate.
An additional requirement of an Irrevocable Life Insurance Trust is the requirement that the Grantor normally make annual gifts to the Trust in order to pay the annual premiums. The Grantor typically wants these annual gifts to count as "present gifts" to take advantage of the Gift Tax Annual Exclusion (presently $13,000.00 per donee). For that to occur, the beneficiary or beneficiaries must have at least a short period of time in which to be able to request that his or her portion of the annual premium be distributed to him or her rather than held in the Trust. For this reason, "Crummey Notices" generally are given to each of the beneficiaries, or their guardians if a beneficiary is a minor. The Crummey Notice, named for a tax case, Crummey vs. Commissioner, explains it that each beneficiary has a right to take his or her pro rata portion of the annual gift. If the beneficiary does not exercise that option within 30 days, that option expires, the gift is considered a “present gift’, and the Trustee can then pay the insurance premium.
An insurance policy taken out by the Trustee can be either a permanent policy or a term policy, except that if the policy is on the life of the Grantor and Grantor's spouse, only permanent policies are available. As with other life insurance policies, there are many funding choices. Some Grantors prefer to front-load premiums (pursuant to allowable insurance guidelines) so as to be able cease gifts to the Trust at a certain point in time and have the policy continue indefinitely. Others, who seek to keep gifts to a minimum, may actually use a term policy. The problem with the term policy is it will end after a certain number of years and if the grantor is uninsurable at that time, the strategy fails. Practically speaking, if there is an insurance need to offset estate taxes, that need is probably always there and a permanent policy should be considered. If there is no longer a need for the policy, or if the Grantor decides not to make additional gifts, the Trustee can cease making premium payments and the policy will lapse.
Even though the trust itself is irrevocable and its terms cannot be changed, the Trustee and the Trustee's advisors should consider reviewing the life insurance policy on a regular basis to determine if the policy is still appropriate. It is possible a new policy with better provisions or with lower premiums would be a better choice for the situation. The duties of a Trustee of an Irrevocable Life Insurance Trust extend beyond simply providing the Crummey Notices and paying the premiums.
A strategy which is available now but which will expire on December 31, 2012, is to make a large gift to an Irrevocable Trust using the current $5,120,000.00 Lifetime Exclusion and purchase a large single pay premium policy. In the event changes in the law reduce the Lifetime Exclusion to $1,000,000.00, the Grantor has already fully funded the policy and need not make any large gifts thereafter. The strategy melds the time-tested strategy of the Irrevocable Life Insurance Trust with the short-term availability of making large gifts currently in the event that the Lifetime Exclusion is reduced significantly.
Just like the other strategies we have discussed, the Irrevocable Life Insurance Trust is another tool to be used where appropriate and can provide significant protection for specific beneficiaries and offset (at a much lower cost) estate taxes that will likely be paid at the death of the Grantor and Grantor's spouse. As is the case with these other tools, it is important to discuss what options are appropriate with a licensed attorney prior to taking any action.