When planning your estate, your primary objective is probably to pass on as much wealth to your heirs as possible. And if you’re like most people, you want to reduce or eliminate estate taxes as well.
But litigation, divorce, malpractice and other potential claims may damage your net worth more than taxes. So protecting assets from potential claims has become an additional planning objective. Fortunately, many of the same techniques you can use to reduce estate taxes also can provide creditor protection.
You can use many techniques to reduce your estate for tax purposes while also protecting your assets from creditors. Yet these measures won’t protect against existing creditors if a transfer constitutes a “fraudulent conveyance” under the Uniform Fraudulent Transfer Act. A fraudulent conveyance occurs if you had actual intent to hinder, delay or defraud a creditor when you made the transfer.
Here are seven ways to safely protect transferred assets from creditors:
1. Outright gifts. An outright gift protects a transferred asset from creditors. But you’ll lose all economic interest in and control over the asset
2. Family limited partnerships (FLPs). An FLP is an excellent asset-protection device because it limits a limited partner’s creditor’s ability to attach partnership assets to satisfy a debt. Creditors generally can obtain a charging order only against a limited partner’s interest in a partnership. A charging order would permit a creditor to receive distributions only when they’re made from the partnership, and the general partner could choose not to make distributions. The creditor could even end up with taxable income without any cash distributions.
3. Irrevocable life insurance trusts (ILITs). From the standpoint of protecting your assets, an ILIT removes insurance proceeds from your estate for federal estate tax purposes. And the trust protects from creditors the cash value of the policies during your lifetime and the policy proceeds when you die.
4. Qualified personal residence trusts (QPRTs). A QPRT lets you transfer a primary or vacation residence to a trust while you reserve the right to live in the home for a term of years. The value of the interest you retain (that is, the right to live in the house for a term of years) is calculated using IRS tables. The value of the property transferred into trust, minus your term interest’s value, is a gift known as the “remainder interest.” This gift can be sheltered from gift tax by your $1 million gift tax exemption. If you survive the term of years, the trust is not included in your estate for federal estate tax purposes. (QPRTs provide creditor protection by insulating the residence from your creditors’ claims. In a creditor protection situation, the nondebtor spouse should create the QPRT and retain the term interest.)
5. Inter vivos qualified terminable interest property (QTIP) trusts. You create this trust during your lifetime for your spouse. It qualifies for the gift tax marital deduction. The federal estate tax benefit to this technique is that when your spouse dies, the QTIP trust is included in his or her estate for federal estate tax purposes. If your spouse lacks sufficient assets in his or her own name to use his or her federal estate tax exemption, the QTIP assets will achieve this.
If you survive your spouse, an amount of assets equal to the estate tax exemption (currently $1.5 million) will first go to fund a family trust created under the QTIP trust for your benefit. The balance of the QTIP trust assets will be allocated to the marital trust for your benefit and will qualify for the marital deduction, resulting in no federal estate tax at your spouse’s death.
By structuring the QTIP trust this way, the assets allocated to the family trust when your spouse dies will escape estate tax. That is, the assets allocated to the family trust don’t qualify for the estate tax marital deduction, but your spouse’s estate tax exemption “shelters” them from estate tax. They also won’t be subject to federal estate tax when you die, because assets allocated to a family trust — including their appreciation — for a surviving spouse’s benefit aren’t part of the surviving spouse’s estate for federal estate tax purposes.
The inter vivos QTIP trust is extremely popular as a creditor protection device because the QTIP assets are completely insulated from claims of your creditors and your spouse’s creditors during your spouse’s lifetime.
6. Charitable remainder trusts (CRTs). A CRT usually provides for distribution of a percentage of the trust principal, at least annually, to a person, usually the grantor, for his or her lifetime. The CRT can provide that when the grantor dies, the grantor’s spouse shall become the CRT annuitant for his or her lifetime. When this period ends, the charity receives the remaining CRT assets (the “remainder interest”).
Creating a CRT provides several income tax benefits. For example, the grantor can deduct the remainder interest’s value (the interest passing to the charity) as determined at the CRT’s inception by consulting IRS tables.
An additional benefit is that the CRT is exempt from all income tax. So a grantor owning assets subject to a large capital gain can transfer these assets to the trust, and it can sell them without the grantor or the trust having to pay any tax on the gain. Or a grantor holding highly appreciated assets that aren’t producing much income can contribute them to the CRT and create an income stream and owe tax only as annuity payments are received. It sells them and reinvests the proceeds to service the annuity.
A nondebtor-spouse-created CRT protects assets from a debtor spouse’s creditors. A creditor can’t attach the principal because of the charitable interest. And a debtor spouse’s creditors can’t attach the nondebtor spouse’s annuity payments. If the nondebtor spouse dies first — and the CRT provides that the debtor spouse becomes the annuitant — the debtor spouse’s creditors could attach the annuity when distributed to him or her.
7. Grantor retained annuity trusts (GRATs). A GRAT is a gift of a remainder interest in an irrevocable trust, under which the grantor has retained an annuity interest for a term of years. For example, if $500,000 is transferred to a GRAT and the grantor has retained a 6% annuity, $30,000 per year will be distributed to the grantor. The remainder interest in the GRAT can be a trust for the grantor’s spouse, with trusts being created for children when both spouses die.
The value of the gift to a GRAT for gift tax purposes is the value of the property transferred to it, less the value of the grantor’s retained annuity interest. The value of the annuity is calculated according to IRS tables.
If the grantor survives the GRAT’s term, its assets will be excluded from the grantor’s estate for federal estate tax purposes. If the grantor dies during the term, some of the assets will be included in the grantor’s estate for federal estate-tax purposes.
If a nondebtor spouse is the grantor of a GRAT, the debtor spouse’s creditors can’t attach the annuity distributions to the nondebtor spouse. These creditors also can’t attach the GRAT principal. If a debtor spouse becomes a GRAT beneficiary when the nondebtor spouse dies, his or her creditors could attach any distributions to the debtor spouse.
These are just a few of the ways proper estate planning can also safeguard your assets from creditors. And in a society rife with litigation, you simply can’t underestimate the importance of protecting yourself. Learn all you can about these measures and others that may benefit you.