What Is a SLAT in Estate Planning?

A SLAT is a type of irrevocable trust that can only be used by married couples for the benefit of a spouse, children, or other beneficiaries. Is a SLAT right for your family? The recent article titled “Should a SLAT Be Part Of Your Estate Planning?” from Forbes examines when a SLAT works, and when it doesn’t.

A SLAT works well while your spouse is alive. They have access to it and the assets it contains, since they are the beneficiary. As of this writing, up to $11,700,000 of assets can be removed from a taxable estate using your federal estate tax exemption, while your spouse continues to have access to the assets.

Sounds like a win-win, doesn’t it? However, there are drawbacks. If your spouse dies, you lose access to the assets. They will pass to the remainder beneficiaries in the trust, typically children, but they can be other beneficiaries of your choice.

If you and your spouse divorce, the spouse is still a beneficiary of the SLAT. Ask your estate planning attorney if this is something they can build into the SLAT but be mindful that if the attorney is representing both spouses for estate planning, there will be ethical considerations that could get tricky.

What about a SLAT for each spouse? If you and your spouse both establish SLATs to benefit each other, you run the risk of the “reciprocal trust doctrine.” The IRS could take the position that the trusts cancel each other out, and rule that the only reason for the SLAT was to remove taxable assets from your estate.

The SLATs need to be different from each other in more than a few ways. Your estate planning attorney will need to develop this with you. A few ways to structure two SLATs:

  • Create them at different times. The more time between their creation, the better.
  • Consider establishing the trusts in different states.
  • Have different trustees.
  • Vary the distribution rules for the surviving spouse and the distribution rules upon the death of the second spouse. For instance, one spouse’s trust could hold the assets in lifetime trusts for the children, while the other spouse’s trust could terminate, and assets be distributed to the children when they reach age 40.

The SLAT is an especially useful way to address tax liability. If you have not maxed out lifetime gifts in 2020, now is the time to start this process. December 2025, when the federal estate tax exemption reverts back to $5 million, will be here faster than you think. If the country needs to find revenue quickly, that change may come even sooner. Tax reform that occurs in 2021 is not likely to be retroactive to January 1, 2021, but there are no guarantees.

Reference: Forbes (Feb. 16, 2021) “Should a SLAT Be Part Of Your Estate Planning?”

Do We Need Estate Planning?

Estate planning is not just about making a will, nor is it just for people who live in mansions. Estate planning is best described in the title of this article “Estate planning is an important strategy for arranging financial affairs and protecting heirs—here are five reasons why everyone needs an estate plan” from Business Insider. Estate planning is a plan for the future, for you, your spouse and those you love.

There are a number of reasons for estate planning:

  • Avoiding paying more federal and state taxes than necessary
  • Ensuring that assets are distributed as you want
  • Naming the people you choose for your own care, if you become incapacitated; and/or
  • Naming the people you choose to care for your minor children, if you and your spouse left them orphaned.

If that sounds like a lot to accomplish, it is. However, with the help of a trusted estate planning attorney, an estate plan can provide you with the peace of mind that comes with having all of the above.

If those decisions and designations are not made by you while you are alive and legally competent, the state law and the courts will determine who will get your assets, raise your children and how much your estate will pay in death taxes to state and federal governments. You can avoid that with an estate plan.

Here are the five key things about estate planning:

It’s more than a will. The estate plan includes creating Durable Powers of Attorney to appoint individuals who will make medical and/or financial decisions, if you are not able to do so. The estate plan also contains Medical Directives to communicate your wishes about what kind of care you do or do not want, if you are so sick you cannot do so for yourself. The estate plan is where you can create Trusts to control how property passes from one person or one generation to the next.

Estate planning saves time, money, and angst. If you have a surviving spouse, they are usually the ones who serve as your executor. However, if you do not and if you do not have an estate plan, the court names a public administrator to distribute assets according to state law. While this is happening, no one can access your assets. There’s a lot of paperwork and a lot of legal fees. With a will, you name an executor who will take care of and gain access to most, if not all, of your assets and administer them according to your instructions.

Estate planning includes being sure that investment and retirement accounts with a beneficiary designation have been completed. If you don’t name a beneficiary, the asset goes through the probate court. If you fail to update your beneficiary designations, your ex or a person from your past may end up with your biggest assets.

Estate planning is also tax planning. While federal taxes only impact the very wealthy right now, that is likely to change in the future. States also have estate taxes and inheritance taxes of their own, at considerably lower exemption levels than federal taxes. If you wish your heirs to receive more of your money than the government, tax planning should be part of your estate plan.

The estate plan is also used to protect minor children. No one expects to die prematurely, and no one expects that two spouses with young children will die. However, it does happen, and if there is no will in place, then the court makes all the decisions: who will raise your children, and where, how their upbringing will be financed, or, if there are no available family members, if the children should become wards of the state and enter the foster care system. That’s probably not what you want.

The estate plan includes the identification of the person(s) you want to raise your children, and who will be in charge of the assets left in trust for the children, like proceeds from a life insurance policy. This can be the same person, but often the financial and child-rearing roles are divided between two trustworthy people. Naming an alternate for each position is also a good idea, just in case the primary people cannot serve.

Estate planning, finally, also takes care of you while you are living, with a power of attorney and healthcare proxy. That way someone you know, and trust can step in, if you are unable to take care of your legal and financial affairs.

Once your estate plan is in place, remember that it is like your home: it needs to be updated every three or four years, or when there are big changes to tax law or in your life.

Reference: Business Insider (Jan. 14, 2021) “Estate planning is an important strategy for arranging financial affairs and protecting heirs—here are five reasons why everyone needs an estate plan”

What Is Purpose of an Irrevocable Life Insurance Trust?
Revocable trust on a wooden desk.

What Is Purpose of an Irrevocable Life Insurance Trust?

Irrevocable Life Insurance Trusts, or “ILITs” are life insurance policies owned by irrevocable trusts used to manage taxes on estates. There are complexities to using an ILIT, but the benefits for some people could be big, according to the article “What Advisors Should Know About Irrevocable Life Insurance Trusts” from U.S. News & World Report.

What is the goal of an ILIT? The goal of an Irrevocable Life Insurance Trust is to own a life insurance policy, so the proceeds of the policy are left to heirs, who avoid estate tax. It’s a type of living trust but one that cannot be dissolved or revoked, unless the trust does not pay premiums and the insurance policy owned by the trust lapses.

The federal estate tax exemption is currently $11.58 million for individuals, and $23.16 for married couples. Most people don’t need to worry about paying federal estate taxes now, but this historically high level will not be around forever. The current law ends in 2025, cutting the exemption by half. If Congress needs to raise revenue before then, change could come sooner.

Who needs an ILIT?

The main advantage of an ILIT is providing immediate cash, tax free, to beneficiaries. The value of the ILIT is out of the estate and not subject to taxable estate calculations. The life insurance policy ownership is transferred from the insured to the trust. The insured does not own or control the insurance policy, but this is a small price to pay for the benefits enjoyed by heirs.

The grantor is the insured person, and the policy is purchased with the ILIT as the owner and the beneficiary. The insured cannot be the trustee of the trust. In most cases, the trustee is a family member, and the insurance premiums are paid through annual gifting from the insured to the trust. These are the details that should be explained by an estate planning attorney to maintain the trust’s legitimacy.

If all goes as planned, when the insured dies, the ILIT distributes the life insurance proceeds tax-free to beneficiaries.

How does an ILIT work?

Let’s say that you have assets worth $15 million. You buy a life insurance policy that will pay $5 million to your children. When you die, your taxable estate would be $20 million, which in 2020 would incur about $3.3 million in federal estate taxes. However, if you used an ILIT and the ILIT owned the $5 million policy instead of you, your taxable estate would be $15 million. Your federal estate tax in 2020 would be about $1.3 million. The estate would save $2 million simply by having the ILIT own the $5 million life insurance policy.

What if the estate tax exemption goes down before you die?

If the estate tax exemption goes down and you have already funded the ILIT, it remains safe from estate taxes. Here is another reason to consider an ILIT—as long as the funds remain in the trust, they are safe from beneficiary’s creditors.

Are there any downsides to an ILIT?

ILITs are not do-it-yourself trusts. They are complex and need to be structured so that the annual contributions used to pay the insurance premiums qualify for the $15,000 gift tax exclusion. To do this, an estate planning attorney will often include a “Crummy” power, which allows the insured to pay the trust for the premium, without reducing their lifetime gift tax exemption amount. However, it also means that beneficiaries need to be well-educated about the ILIT, so they don’t make any errors that undo the trust.

When a contribution is made, Crummey letters are sent to the beneficiaries, letting them know that a gift was made to the trust and they have the right to withdraw the money. However, if they withdraw the money, the insurance policy could collapse.

You’ll need to be committed to keeping this policy for the long run. You’ll need to be able to fund it appropriately.

There is also a three year look back for existing insurance policies that are moved into the ILIT, so the grantor must be alive for three years after the policy is given to the ILIT for it to remain outside of the estate. This does not apply when a new policy is established in the ILIT and does not apply if the ILIT buys the policy from the grantor.

Reference: U.S. News & World Report (Oct. 29, 2020) “What Advisors Should Know About Irrevocable Life Insurance Trusts”