The Giant Rat of Sumatra

This title will be familiar to readers of the adventures of Sherlock Holmes. It’s a story mentioned in one of the Holmes stories as one for which the world was not yet ready. Apparently, the world was never ready for the story, because the author died without having written about a giant rat, from Sumatra or elsewhere.

I think of this passage in the works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle as an example of things left undone. We often have plans we would like to carry out but for some reason can’t get to. Sometimes, like Doyle, we never get to them. In my practice, I see this kind of procrastination frequently when the subject of life insurance comes up. (By the way, I neither sell nor benefit from the sale of life insurance.) Life insurance is a product with many useful tax characteristics, and its use has become more…useful in recent years because of developments in the insurance industry and businesses related to the insurance industry.

Among the valuable tax benefits of life insurance is that the receipt of the proceeds is generally free of federal income tax. I say generally because it’s possible to lose that tax exemption if, for example, the insurance policy is transferred for value, such as by selling it. There are ways of avoiding that problem, depending on the type of transfer.

The proceeds of life insurance may be subject to federal estate tax, which could reduce the amount of the proceeds significantly. But there’s a way to avoid estate taxation that is frequently used, especially for large amounts of insurance. If the life insurance policy is not owned by the insured but instead by an irrevocable life insurance trust, the proceeds will escape federal estate taxation. The trust document will determine where the proceeds will go. Often they’re held in trust for the surviving spouse for life and then paid to the children. Not having to pay estate tax, in addition to the exemption from income tax, is a doubly valuable benefit.

But if the trust is irrevocable, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to change it. Suppose you change your mind about where the proceeds should go, which could happen for any number of reasons. Are you stuck leaving the proceeds to those you might consider the wrong people, or the right people but on the wrong terms? One solution that people have considered is to set up a new trust and sell the policy, for its fair market value, from the old trust to the new trust. But that creates the potential transfer for value problem described above. Is there a way around this problem?

The IRS has just issued a revenue ruling, 2008-22, which confirms the ability to make such a transfer without jeopardizing either the income tax or the estate tax exemption. If the new trust is a grantor trust, which means a trust that is treated effectively as the same person as the grantor, then the transfer for value rule won’t apply. (In this situation, the grantor would be the insured.) But how do you make the trust a grantor trust? The Internal Revenue Code says that one way is to give the grantor the right to substitute property of equal value for the property in the trust. The grantor might never make such a substitution, but the right to substitute is enough. The ruling just issued tells us that having such a power need not cause the proceeds to become subject to federal estate tax. It’s one of those intricate drafting situations that actually works very simply and preserves the excellent tax benefits life insurance offers.

Like writing a will, buying life insurance is something that people sometimes avoid, with its suggestion of mortality. There are some complexities to it, but careful planning can make it an important part of your financial “story.”

Robert H. Louis
Saul Ewing

Explore posts in the same categories: Robert H. Louis, Trusts and Estates

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