By Nancy Burner, Esq.
A key tool in the estate planner’s toolbox is a living trust. The term “living trust” refers to a document created during life that establishes a legal entity which can own certain assets. The term differentiates a living trust from a “testamentary trust,” which is created after death. A further distinction to be made is whether the trust is Revocable or Irrevocable. Regardless of the title of the trust, the terms of the document will dictate the rules of how the assets in trust are managed and what control is retained by the trust creator.
A revocable trust leaves the creator with complete control over trust assets. The creator can be named as trustee with the power to revoke, amend, and restate the trust. Further, the creator’s Social Security number is used for the trust’s estate and income tax reporting. The main purpose of creating a revocable trust is to avoid court involvement after death.
Assets that are not in a trust, do not have a joint owner, and do not name a beneficiary, require a court process after death. For those assets, the New York State Surrogate’s Court process is called probate, if the deceased person had a will, and administration, if they died without a will. There are several reasons to avoid the court after death, varying from disinheriting family members or not knowing your family, to owning property in multiple states or having disabled beneficiaries. For these and other purposes, the creation of a trust is often recommended.
Beyond revocable trusts, circumstances may dictate the creation of an irrevocable trust. Irrevocable trusts are those that are written in a way to limit the creator of the trust in some fashion. The exact limitations will depend on the goals of the trust. Common reasons to create an irrevocable trust are for Medicaid planning purposes or estate tax planning.
For estate tax planning, two such trusts are an Intentionally Defective Grantor Trust (“IDGT”) and a Spousal Limited Access Trust (“SLAT”). Assets owned by an IDGT are removed from the creator’s estate, placing the growth outside of their taxable estate while taxing the income to the creator. A SLAT is an irrevocable trust created by one spouse for the benefit of the other. The SLAT can provide income and principal distributions to the spouse and other beneficiaries. While the contributing spouse makes an irrevocable gift to the trust and gives up any right to the funds, the beneficiary spouse and other beneficiaries are provided immediate access to the gifted funds. Both the IDGT and SLAT are tools for claiming the benefit of the current Federal estate tax exemption ($12.06 million in 2022) before it expires.
Most people do not realize that the death benefit of life insurance is taxable in your estate. Creating an Irrevocable Life Insurance Trust (“ILIT”) and transferring policy ownership to the trust removes the death benefit from the taxable estate. This also provides liquidity to pay any taxes imposed on the balance of the estate.
If the goal is to protect assets while obtaining eligibility for Medicaid benefits, it may be prudent to create a Medicaid Asset Protection Trust (“MAPT”). Under this type of trust, the creator should not be the trustee. While the creator can receive income distributions, they are restricted from accessing principal of the trust.
All trusts, whether revocable or irrevocable, can avoid court process after death so long as the document is drafted and funded properly. The type of trust and exact terms can be determined by an estate planning attorney to ensure the client’s specific circumstances and goals are considered.
Nancy Burner, Esq. is the founder and managing partner at Burner Law Group, P.C with offices located in East Setauket, Westhampton Beach, New York City and East Hampton.