July 25, 2024


Interior Of The Road

Five Levels of Estate Planning

The five levels of estate planning is a systematic approach for explaining estate planning in a way that you can easily follow. Which of the five levels you need to complete is based on your particular objectives and circumstances.

Level One: The Basic Plan

The situation for level one planning is that you have no will or living trust in place, or your existing will or living trust is outdated or inadequate. The objectives for this type of planning are to:

o reduce or eliminate estate taxes;
o avoid the cost, delays and publicity associated with probate in the event of death or incapacity; and
o protect heirs from their inability, their disability, their creditors and their predators, including ex-spouses.

To accomplish these objectives, you would use a pour-over will, a revocable living trust that allocates a married person’s estate between a credit shelter trust and a marital trust, general powers of attorney for financial matters and durable powers of attorney for health care and living wills.

Level Two: The Irrevocable Life Insurance Trust (ILIT)

The situation for level two planning is that your estate is projected to be greater than the estate-tax exemption. While there is a present lapse in the estate and generation-skipping transfer taxes, it’s likely that Congress will reinstate both taxes (perhaps even retroactively) some time this year. If not, on January 1, 2011, the estate tax exemption (which was $3.5 million in 2009) becomes $1 million, and the top estate tax rate (which was 45% in 2009) becomes 55%. In any event, you can make cash gifts to an ILIT using your $13,000/$26,000 annual gift-tax exclusion per beneficiary.

Level Three: Family Limited Partnerships

The situation for level three planning is that you have a projected estate-tax liability that exceeds the life insurance purchased in level two. If your $1 million gift-tax exemption ($2 million for married couples) is used to make lifetime gifts, the gifted property and all future appreciation and income on that property are removed from your estate.

More people would be willing to make gifts to their children if they could continue to manage the gifted property. A family limited partnership (FLP) or a family limited liability company (FLLC) can play a valuable role in this situation. You would typically be the general partner or manager and in that capacity, continue to manage the FLP or FLLC’s assets. You can even take a reasonable management fee for your services as the general partner or manager. Moreover, by gifting FLP or FLLC interests to an ILIT, the FLP or FLLC’s income can be used to pay premiums, thereby freeing up your $13,000 / $26,000 annual gift-tax exclusion for other types of gifts.

Level Four: Qualified Personal Residence Trusts and Grantor Retained Annuity Trusts

The situation for level four planning is the additional need to reduce your estate after your $1 million/$2 million gift-tax exemption has been used. Although paying gift taxes is less expensive than paying estate taxes, most people do not want to pay gift taxes. There are several techniques to make substantial gifts to children and grandchildren without paying significant gift taxes.

One technique is a qualified personal residence trust (QPRT). A QPRT allows you to transfer a residence or vacation home to a trust for the benefit of your children, while retaining the right to use the residence for a term of years. By retaining the right to occupy the residence, the value of the remainder interest is reduced, along with the taxable gift.

Another technique is a grantor retained annuity (GRAT). A GRAT is similar to a QPRT. The typical GRAT is funded with income-producing property such as subchapter S stock or FLP or FLLC interests. The GRAT pays you a fixed annuity for a specified term of years. Because of the retained annuity, the gift to the remaindermen (your children) is substantially less than the current value of the property.

Both QPRTs and GRATs can be designed with terms long enough to reduce the value of the remainder interest passing to your children to a nominal amount or even to zero. However, if you do not survive the stated term, the property is included in your estate. Therefore, it is recommended that an ILIT be funded as a “hedge” against your death prior to the end of the stated term.

Level Five: The Zero Estate-Tax Plan

Level five planning is a desire to “disinherit” the IRS. The strategy combines gifts of life insurance with gifts to charity. For example, take a married couple, both age 55, with a $20 million estate. Assume that there is neither growth nor depletion of the assets and that both spouses die in a year when the estate-tax exemption is $3.5 million, and the top estate-tax rate is 45%.

With the typical marital credit shelter trust, when the first spouse dies, $3.5 million is allocated to the credit shelter trust and $16.5 million to the marital trust. No federal estate tax is due. However, at the surviving spouse’s death, the estate tax due is $5.85 million. The net result is that the children inherit only $14.15 million.

With the zero estate-tax plan, the ILIT (with generation-skipping provisions) is funded with a $13 million second-to-die life insurance policy. These gifts reduce the estate value to $18 million. In addition, the couple’s living trusts each leave $3.5 million (the amount exempt from estate taxes) to their children upon the surviving spouse’s death. The balance of their estate ($11 million) passes to a public charity or private foundation-estate-tax free. To summarize, the zero estate-tax plan delivers $20 million (i.e., $13 million from the ILIT and $7 million from the living trusts) to the children instead of $14.15 million; the charity receives $11 million instead of nothing; and the IRS receives nothing, instead of $5.85 million.

In summary, with some advanced planning, it is possible to reduce estate taxes, avoid probate, set forth your wishes, and protect your heirs from creditors, ex-spouses and estate taxes.