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The Basics of Grantor Retained Annuity Trusts

Jun 21, 2021

Estate plans are crafted to address the needs of each individual, which means that no two plans are alike. But there is a reason so many estate plans use trusts. Trusts can help protect your assets, reduce or eliminate gift and estate taxes, and ensure a smooth transfer of wealth to the next generation. And you don’t need to have a lot of wealth to benefit from a trust. In fact, even if you don’t have the means to fully part with your assets now, you can set up your trust so that it provides you with income support while you’re still living.

What Is a GRAT?

A grantor retained annuity trust (GRAT) is an irrevocable trust that you create to benefit both you and your heirs. When you transfer assets into a GRAT, you retain the rights to the assets that you contributed, up to the entire principal balance. That principal is returned to you over the GRAT term in the form of annuity payments. The asset appreciation that remains in the trust is then either distributed to your beneficiaries or transferred to a separate account and held in trust for their future benefit.

Tax Consequences of a GRAT

GRATs are not completely tax-free transfers of wealth, but they can help reduce or eliminate taxes.

Gift Tax

When you transfer assets into a GRAT, you will owe gift taxes in the current year based on the presumed future value of the assets that will remain at the end of the annuity term. The IRS presumes that your assets will generate a rate of return using the interest rates outlined in Code Section 7520, which is tied to the applicable federal rate (AFR). If this amount exceeds the $15,000 per-beneficiary annual gift tax exclusion, your gift will reduce your lifetime estate tax exemption.

Income Tax

A GRAT is considered a grantor trust, which means that for income tax purposes, you and your trust are indistinguishable. This has two consequences. First, it means that you are responsible for paying income tax on income that the GRAT earns. If trust assets generate interest or capital gains, you must report them on your income tax return. Second, since the annuity payments are merely a transfer of principal between the same taxpayer, the annuity payments will not be taxable to you.

Estate Tax

At the end of the GRAT term, the remainder will transfer to your beneficiaries. This transfer will have no effect on your estate tax and will not be taxable to your beneficiaries. The one exception to this rule is if you pass away during the GRAT term, before all annuity payments have been made. In this instance, the GRAT’s appreciation will be included in your estate. As long as you outlive the GRAT term, the remainder (i.e., the asset appreciation that exceeds the IRS’s presumed asset growth) is not taxable to you or your beneficiaries.

Establishing a GRAT

If you want to establish a GRAT, there are a few things you need to think about.

The GRAT Term

The term of your GRAT must be at least two years, and many individuals choose to keep their GRAT term short — between five and ten years, depending on their age and the types of assets held in the trust. The GRAT term is important for a couple reasons. If you die during the GRAT term, you will recognize no estate tax benefit from your GRAT; the appreciation of GRAT assets will be included in your estate. However, having too short of a GRAT term will limit the amount of appreciation those assets generate. Finding that happy medium can be tricky.

The Assets and Their Expected Appreciation

The best assets for a GRAT are those that are expected to appreciate over the GRAT term. If you transfer assets that lose value over time, you will be responsible for funding the trust so that it can pay the annuity. For a GRAT to be beneficial, the assets must appreciate at a rate that exceeds the rate identified in Section 7520. Fortunately, the Section 7520 interest rate is almost always more conservative than the market, which means that as long as your assets perform at least as well as the market, your GRAT is likely to be a successful investment.

Interest Rates

GRATs are popular when the Section 7520 interest rates are at their lowest, because appreciation that exceeds these interest rates transfers to your beneficiaries without ever being taxed. Check with your investment advisor or ask a Level Four advisor on what the best appreciable assets in your portfolio may be.

Tax Policy

The estate tax exemption is at an all-time high thru 2025, and thus most people will avoid estate tax. If you died today, it is unlikely your estate would be taxable. However, the legislation that established this high exemption sunsets in just a few years. In 2026, the estate tax exemption reverts to $5 million. It’s important to think about what the tax landscape might look like when you pass away. By using GRATs, you can set up trusts to benefit your heirs without taking too much of a hit to your lifetime exemption, ensuring you have enough to cover your remaining assets at your death.

Planning for Your Future

Estate tax planning is something you can begin at any age, but the earlier you begin, the more opportunities you’ll have to make optimal planning decisions. Reach out to your CRI advisors today if you want to learn about GRATs or other estate tax planning techniques.

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