Is an Irrevocable Trust a Good Idea?

An irrevocable trust is mainly used for tax planning, says a recent article from Think Advisor titled “10 Facts to Know About Irrevocable Trusts.” Its key purpose is to take assets out of an estate, reducing the chances of having to pay estate taxes. For estate planning purposes, placing assets inside the irrevocable trust is the same as giving it to an heir. If the estate exceeds the current limit of $11.7 million, then an irrevocable trust would be a smart move. Remember the $11.7 million includes life insurance policy proceeds. Many states with estate taxes also have far lower exemptions than the federal estate tax, so high income families still have to be concerned with paying estate taxes.

However, let’s not forget that beneficiaries must pay taxes on the income they receive from an irrevocable trust, usually at ordinary income tax rates. On the plus side, trusts are not subject to gift tax, so the trust can pay out more than the current gift tax limit of $15,000 every year.

If the trust itself generates income that remains inside the trust, then the trust will have to pay income taxes on the income.

Asset protection is another benefit from an irrevocable trust. If you are sued, any assets in the irrevocable trust are beyond the reach of a legal judgment, a worthwhile strategy for people who have a greater likelihood of being sued because of their profession. However, the irrevocable trust must be created long before lawsuits are filed.

A physician who transfers a million-dollar home into the trust on the eve of a malpractice lawsuit, for instance, may be challenged with having made a fraudulent transfer to the trust.

There is a cost to an irrevocable trust’s protection. You have to give up control of the assets and have no control over the trust. Legally you could be a trustee, but that means you have control over the trust, which means you will lose all tax benefits and asset protections.

Most people name a trusted family member or business associate to serve as the trustee. Consider naming a successor trustee, in case the original trustee is unable to fulfill their duties.

If you don’t want to give someone else control of your assets, you may wish to use a revocable trust and give up some of the protections of an irrevocable trust.

Despite the name, changes can be made to an irrevocable trust by the trustee. Trust documents can designate a “trust protector,” who is empowered to make certain changes to the trust. Many states have regulations concerning changes to the administrative aspects of a trust, and a court has the power to make changes to a trust.

An irrevocable trust can buy and sell property. If a house is placed into the irrevocable trust, the house can be sold, as long as the proceeds go into the trust. The trust is responsible for paying taxes on any profits from the sale. However, you can request that the trustee use the proceeds from selling a house to buy a different house. Be sure the new house is titled correctly: owned by the trust, and not you.

Asset swaps may be used to change irrevocable trusts. Let’s say you want to buy back an asset from the trust, but don’t want that asset to go back into your estate when you die. There are tax advantages for doing this. If the trust holds an asset that has become highly appreciated, swap cash for the asset and the basis on which the asset’s capital gains is calculated gets reset to its fair value, eliminating any capital gains on a later sale of the asset.

Loss of control is part of the irrevocable trust downside. Make sure that you have enough assets to live on before putting everything into the trust. You can’t sell assets in the trust to produce personal income.

Transferring assets to an irrevocable trust helps maintain eligibility for means-tested government programs, like Medicaid and Supplemental Security Income. Assets and income sheltered within an irrevocable trust are not counted as personal assets for these kinds of program limits. However, Medicaid has a look-back period of five years, so the transfer of a substantial asset to an irrevocable trust must have taken place five years before applying for Medicaid.

Talk with your estate planning attorney first. Not every irrevocable trust satisfies each of these goals. It is also possible that an irrevocable trust may not fit your needs. An experienced estate planning attorney will be able to create a plan that suits your needs best for tax planning, asset protection and legacy building.

Reference: Think Advisor (Dec. 16, 2020) “10 Facts to Know About Irrevocable Trusts”

 

How Family Businesses Can Prepare Now for Future Tax Changes

The upcoming presidential election is giving small to mid-sized business owners concerns regarding changes in their business and the legacy they leave to family members. The recent article “How family businesses can come out on top in presidential election uncertainty,” from the St. Louis Business Journal looks at what’s at stake.

Tax breaks. The current estate tax threshold of $11.58 million is scheduled to sunset at the end of 2025, when it will revert to the pre-2018 exemption level of $5 million (as indexed for inflation) for individuals. If that law is changed after the election, it’s possible that the exemption could be phased out before the current levels end.

Increased tax liability. These possible changes present a problem for business owners. Making gifts now can use the full exemption, but future gifts may not enjoy such a generous tax exemption. Some transfers, if the exemption changes, could be subject to gift taxes as high as 40%.

Missed opportunity with lower valuations. Properly structured gifts to family members, which benefit from lower valuations (that is, before value appreciation due to capital gains) and current allowable valuation discounts give families an opportunity to pass a great amount of their businesses to heirs tax free.

Here’s what this might look like: a family business owner gifts $1 million in the business to one heir, but at the time of the owner’s passing, that share appreciates to $10 million. Because the gift was made early, the business owner only uses up $1 million of the estate tax exemption. That’s a $9 million savings at 40%; saving the estate from paying $3.6 million in taxes. If the laws change, that’s a costly missed opportunity.

It’s better to protect a business from the “Three D’s”—death, divorce, disability or a serious health issue, by preparing in advance. That means the appropriate estate protection, prepared with the help of an estate planning attorney who understands the needs of business owners.

Consider reorganizing the business. If you own an S-corporation, you know how complicated estate planning can be. One strategy is to reorganize your business, so you have both voting and non-voting shares. Gifting non-voting shares might provide some relief to business owners, who are not yet ready to give up complete control of their business.

Preparing for future ownership alternatives. What kind of planning will offer the most flexibility for future cash flow and, if necessary, being able to use principal? Grantor Retained Annuity Trusts (GRATs), entity freezes, and sales are three ways the owner might retain access to cash flow, while transferring future appreciation of assets out of the estate.

Know your gifting options. Your estate planning attorney will help determine what gifting scenario may work best. Some business owners establish irrevocable trusts, providing asset protection for the family and allowing the trust to have control of distributions.

Reference: St. Louis Business Journal (April 3, 2020) “How family businesses can come out on top in presidential election uncertainty”

 

Estate Plan Updates in the Age of Coronavirus

With the ever-increasing number of deaths in  the U.S. from Covid-19, many people are now doing what estate planning attorneys have advised them to do for years—get their estate plans in order. Many are having phone meetings or videoconferences with estate planning attorneys, says Barron’s in the article “The Coronavirus Has Americans Scrambling to Set Their Estate Plans. Here Are Some Key Things to Know.” People are worried, and they are in a hurry too.

However, estate planning can be complex, even when there is plenty of time to prepare. Here are a few tips:

Everyone should have three basic documents: a last will and testament, a durable power of attorney and an advance health care directive. These documents will allow assets to be distributed, give another person the ability to make financial decisions, if you are too sick to do so and also allow another person to talk to medical professionals on your behalf on treatment and care. These same documents are also a good idea for any young adults in the family, anyone older than 18 in most states.

With the proper documents prepared in accordance with the laws of your state, you may be able to avoid having a court appoint a guardian for minor children, a guardian and/or conservator for yourself while you are alive and not able to manage your financial affairs either due to physical or mental incapacitation.

In addition to these basic documents, everyone needs to review their beneficiary designations on assets that include bank accounts, IRAs, annuities, insurance policies and any other assets. If family situations have changed, these may be out of date.

Other issues to be discussed with an estate planning attorney:

  • Living trusts (whether revocable or irrevocable), which provide an opportunity to direct how assets in a trust will be held, invested and distributed before and after death,  can avoiding probate, and, in the case of irrevocable trusts,  can protect assets and make the trustmaker eligible for Medicaid or MassHealth when or if the trustmaker needs skilled care in a nursing home.
  • Estate tax minimization strategies.
  • Charitable giving planning.
  • Durable powers of attorney, which appoint an agent to make financial decisions.
  • Health-care surrogates, which let people designate a surrogate to make health decisions on their behalf and receive health care information from physicians.
  • Living wills, which allow people to designate whether to provide life-prolonging treatment, if in a terminal state.

Reference: Barron’s (March 22, 2020) “The Coronavirus Has Americans Scrambling to Set Their Estate Plans. Here Are Some Key Things to Know”