Thursday, August 29, 2013

Unwinding Irrevocable Life Insurance Trusts

     On Tuesday, we addressed the technique of funding insurance policies to an Irrevocable Trust and using the annual gift exclusion to make premium payments. For those clients with potential estate tax liability this technique allows them to help fund the estate tax liability at a fraction of the actual cost because policy proceeds at death that will not be includable in the client's estate will more than offset the premiums paid during lifetime. When collected by the Irrevocable Trust, the proceeds can be used to purchase assets from the Living Trust or loan funds to the Living Trust to pay estate taxes until illiquid assets are sold.
     However, what happens if circumstances change and the purpose for which the Irrevocable Trust was created no longer exist, or if the client has a change of heart about owning the policies? Since the trust is irrevocable, the client cannot unwind the trust through revocation. The client can however discontinue annual gifts to the trust (and its lifetime trust beneficiaries), leaving the Trustee of the Irrevocable Trust without any assets to pay the life insurance premiums. Eventually the insurance coverage will lapse leaving the trust without any assets, at which point the trust ceases to exist as a matter of law.
     Alternatively, as part of the initial planning for the Irrevocable Trust, specially added provisions may allow the Grantor to unwind the trust despite its irrevocable nature. One strategy is to structure the Irrevocable Trust as a "Grantor Trust”. If properly drafted, the Trust can be treated as property of the Grantor for the purposes of income tax liability, excludable from the Grantor's estate for estate tax purposes. If the trust holds only life insurance there should be no income, presuming the Trustee uses all of the gifts made to the trust by the client to pay the premiums on the life insurance owned by the trust, and  there should be no impact on the client’s income tax liability.
     The Internal Revenue Code Sections 671-678 detail the circumstances under which the grantor trust rules apply. One of those provisions gives  the Grantor the right to substitute assets of equivalent value for the assets held by the trust. This allows the Grantor to substitute or exchange other assets equaling the value of the insurance policies contained in the trust for the life insurance policies themselves. Those assets are still subject to the distribution terms of the trust.
     As with any advanced estate planning technique, including the creation or termination of irrevocable trusts, advice and counsel of experienced attorneys is important in order to avoid unintended consequences. 


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