Estate tax planning can become complicated when multiple parties are involved. For example, you may be concerned about providing assets to a surviving spouse of a second marriage, while also providing for your children from your first marriage. Of course, you also want to take advantage of favorable estate tax provisions in the law.
Fortunately, there’s a relatively simple way to meet your objectives with few dire tax consequences. It’s commonly called a spousal lifetime access trust (SLAT).
A SLAT in action
Essentially, a SLAT is an irrevocable trust established by a grantor spouse for the benefit of the other spouse — called the beneficiary spouse — plus other family members, such as children and grandchildren. The beneficiary spouse is granted limited access to the trust’s funds. As a result, the assets generally are protected from the reach of the beneficiary spouse’s creditors. This ensures that the remainder beneficiaries — namely, the children and grandchildren — will have a nest egg to rely on.
According to the SLAT terms, lifetime distributions are made to the beneficiary spouse to meet his or her needs. Preferably, if other funds are available to the beneficiary spouse outside of the trust, those funds are used first instead of making regular distributions to the spouse. Otherwise, distributions from the SLAT to the beneficiary spouse will reduce the trust’s effectiveness over time.
Favorable tax provisions
One of the primary attractions of a SLAT is that it’s designed to minimize federal tax liabilities. First, the transfer of assets is treated as a taxable gift, but it can be sheltered from gift tax by a combination of the annual gift tax exclusion ($16,000 for 2022) and the gift and estate tax exemption ($12.06 million for 2022). However, be aware that use of the exemption during the grantor spouse’s lifetime reduces the available estate tax shelter at death.
Second, assets transferred by the grantor spouse to a SLAT are removed from his or her taxable estate. Thus, estate taxes aren’t a concern, thereby allowing the remaining estate tax exemption to be used for other assets.
Third, a SLAT is considered to be a “grantor trust” for income tax purposes. In other words, when a grantor spouse establishes a SLAT for the benefit of the beneficiary spouse, the trust’s taxable income is reported on the grantor’s personal tax return, but the trust entity pays zero tax. This may be advantageous because the assets can compound inside the trust without any income tax erosion. On the death of the grantor spouse, the trust is required to pay income tax.
Other planning considerations
As mentioned above, the transfer of assets to a SLAT is a gift, so the grantor must file a federal gift tax return. Finally, don’t forget that a SLAT is an irrevocable trust. Thus, once the grantor spouse transfers assets to the trust, he or she can’t get them back.
If you’re considering using a SLAT, contact us for additional details.