How Does an Irrevocable Life Insurance Trust Work?

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Life insurance is often a cornerstone of a comprehensive estate plan, particularly when an estate consists of largely illiquid assets.

Irrevocable Life Insurance Trusts (ILITs) are a common planning tool, the purpose of which is to allow individuals to ensure the benefits from a life insurance policy can avoid estate taxes and follow the interests of insured. However, buying the policy at the wrong time, leaving out Crummey withdrawal rights and ignoring administrative costs are commonly made mistakes. Being aware of these snares is important to make the ILIT effective, says a recent article titled “Irrevocable Life Insurance Trusts in Estate Planning: Common Pitfalls” from Think Advisor.

Purchasing a new policy outside of the ILIT is a commonly made error. If you purchase a new life insurance policy and then transfer it to the ILIT, the death benefit will be included in your estate for estate tax purposes if you die within three years of the transfer. This undoes any estate tax advantages of the insurance policy and the trust.

IRS Section 2035 causes estate tax inclusion for anyone who transfers or otherwise gives up power over a life insurance policy within three years of death. However, there are ways to address this. If you first establish and fund the ILIT, so the trust is the entity purchasing the policy directly, the death benefit is excluded from your estate regardless of how long you live after the purchase date.

Another error concerns the “Crummy Protocol.” Unless or until the premiums on a life insurance policy are fully paid or are self-sustaining through a draw on the cash surrender value, the insured must make gifts to the ILIT to pay for the premiums. People often like to use their annual gift tax exclusion to make contributions. However, to qualify the gifts for the annual gift tax exclusion, the beneficiaries of the ILIT must have the right to withdraw certain amounts transferred into the ILIT.

Failing to include the required withdrawal rights may eliminate the ability to offset gifts by the annual exclusion right. Even if the ILIT includes Crummey withdrawal rights, you won’t be able to take advantage of the annual gift tax exclusion if the beneficiaries are not informed of their withdrawal rights each time an eligible contribution is made to the ILIT.

Your estate planning attorney will advise you as to how this occurs from a procedural perspective. You’ll want them to review it before it is signed to confirm it includes Crummey withdrawal rights and to help you establish procedures for providing the requisite notice and waiting the required period each time a gift is made.

Lastly, ILITs often have limited assets since they may only be funded with the insurance policy and the amount needed to pay the premiums. Therefore, if the ILIT has any administrative expenses, like accounting, legal or trustee funds, there may be insufficient assets in the ILIT to pay them.

If you pay the expenses directly, they will be considered as making a gift for gift tax purposes, because you will be deemed to have first transferred to the ILIT any amounts paid on its behalf. Avoid this issue by funding your ILIT with the necessary money to pay premiums and administrative costs. If the class of beneficiaries holding Crummey withdrawal rights is broad enough, this may be done solely through annual exclusion gifts.

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Reference: Think Advisor (Sep. 29, 2022) “Irrevocable Life Insurance Trusts in Estate Planning: Common Pitfalls”