As an attorney, I’m always a bit tickled when a relatively obscure estate planning device makes the national news. Just a couple years ago, the untimely passing of Prince (legendary Minnesota musician and personal favorite of mine) brought the importance of estate planning to the national stage. Even more recently, the passing of Aretha Franklin, another great talent who neglected to make a will, has reiterated the point. Even so, the statistics reveal that the vast majority of Americans do not have any estate plan in place. But this post is not about celebs who failed to plan, but rather celebs who planned quite well, and what we can learn from them.
In a recent investigation by the New York Times, reporters revealed that President Trump’s father, Fred Trump, a billionaire in his own right, used something called a “GRAT” to pass his fortune onto his children. The Times revealed that, using this GRAT, Trump’s estate paid far less in estate taxes than it otherwise might have had to do. So, what is a GRAT?
A GRAT is a grantor retained annuity trust. It has its origins in an estate tax loophole in Internal Revenue Code Section 2702. Section 2702 was enacted in 1990 to eliminate what were called grantor retained income trusts (or “GRITs” — see, isn’t this fun?). Congress wanted to stop people from being able to transfer assets to their children in a trust while retaining the income to themselves and using the income to offset the transfer taxes that would ordinarily be owed to the government. While the law outlawed “GRITs”, it continued to allow a very similar arrangement so long as the grantor received a fixed amount of income, or an annuity, instead of a variable income stream. Thus, the GRAT was born.
The advantage of a GRAT is its ability to freeze the present value of an asset for transfer tax purposes even though the asset continues to appreciate. Suppose you have an asset that you know is going to grow in value in a big way — say stock in a closely held company that’s about to go public. Later on you might want to gift the stock to your children, but by then the stock will be so valuable you might have to pay gift or estate tax on it; but you don’t want to give the stock to your children now before it appreciates. If you create a GRAT, you can transfer the stock to the GRAT, the GRAT will pay income to you for a fixed term (2-10 years is typical) based on the present day value of the stock, the annuity income can zero out the transfer tax obligation you would otherwise have, and your children will later receive the stock after it has grown in value, tax free. In short, you transfer an asset to the GRAT, the GRAT pays you pack the initial value of the asset upon the date of transfer, and then your children receive the appreciated asset later on, tax free (or tax reduced).
You might be thinking that you have lots of assets — stocks, real estate, etc.—that are likely to appreciate, so why aren’t we all using GRATs? First, because most people today will never owe any estate or gift tax. The current federal estate tax exemption is $11.2 million per person. That means a married couple can transfer $22.4 million combined tax-free. If you’re wealth is below this figure, a GRAT probably isn’t for you. Second, if your asset fails to appreciate as expected, there’s no advantage. The assets in the GRAT have to appreciate at a rate greater than a rate established by the IRS under Internal Revenue Code Section 7520, and that can be hard to predict in the real world. Third, if the grantor dies before the end of the GRAT annuity term, the whole thing is included in the grantor’s gross estate for the calculation of the estate’s tax obligation. That’s a lot of “what ifs”!
Last, there are alternatives to GRATs that most people should consider. If you live in a state, like Minnesota, that has a state estate tax exemption that is much lower than the federal exemption, you could still have to worry about estate tax even if you don’t have a Trump-sized portfolio. For these folks, an irrevocable life insurance trust (ILIT) or charitable giving may be a more appropriate, less risky, and less complicated alternative.
So, while GRATs aren’t for everyone, estate plans are. Borrow a play from the Trump family play book and contact a lawyer today to get started on your estate plan. An attorney like me or my colleagues at FMJ can help you find the right plan for you.