A Time For Wait-and-See Estate Planning Techniques
Estate tax reform continues to sustain momentum–insurance producers, estate planners and clients continue to ask how to set up estate plans in an uncertain tax environment.
After all, irrevocable gifting and irrevocable life insurance trusts are not as popular in light of the constantly changing estate tax landscape. Many commentators have pointed out that financial advisors should help clients adopt flexible estate plans that will help them cope with changes. In many cases, flexible estate plans should be adopted.
Life insurance, especially flexible premium products such as universal life and survivorship universal life, can and should play a key role in many of these plans. In these wait-and-see estate planning techniques, the value of owning life insurance can be the focus, while taking into account estate tax planning considerations.
Single Life Policies. One example of a wait-and-see estate planning technique that may incorporate the use of a single life policy is the disclaimer trust technique.
A disclaimer is an irrevocable written refusal by a beneficiary to accept property from a decedent. It must be filed prior to the beneficiary receiving the property and within nine months of the date of the decedents death. It is also important to note that the person disclaiming the property must not be a minor. If the disclaimer is valid, the disclaimed property passes as though the person disclaiming the property predeceased the decedent so that no additional transfer tax is imposed.
For example, Harry Husband could own a universal life insurance contract on his life and name his wife, Wanda, as primary beneficiary. Variable universal life may also be a choice if Harry and Wanda want more potential growth of the cash value, while taking more risk with respect to the equity subaccounts. The disclaimer trust strategy works regardless of the policy type. Harry could name his trust as the contingent beneficiary.
Upon Harrys death, Wanda may choose to keep the insurance proceeds, especially if estate taxes are repealed. However, if estate taxes are not repealed, Wanda may disclaim the life insurance proceeds. Harrys trust would then be the beneficiary of the insurance proceeds.
Assuming Harrys trust contains exemption equivalent trust provisions in addition to marital trust provisions, part or all of the insurance proceeds may be allocated to the exemption equivalent trust (credit shelter trust), to help maximize transfer tax savings.
The amount allocated to the exemption equivalent trust should not be included in Wandas taxable estate at her death and eventually would be distributed to trust beneficiaries estate tax-free. The disclaimer trust arrangement provides flexibility so that Wanda, as the surviving spouse, decides how much she needs after Harrys death. Wanda should, of course, seek legal and financial counsel when making such decisions.
Wanda is not obligated to disclaim the insurance proceeds. So, if Harry and Wandas estate plan requires them to guarantee benefits to anyone other than Harry and Wanda, they should employ other estate planning techniques to achieve such objectives. For example, Harry and/or Wanda may have children from a previous marriage for whom they want to provide. A disclaimer trust would not be appropriate in such situations.
In the event Wanda dies first, the disclaimer technique provides Harry with control of the universal life insurance contract. Harry may keep the policy, gift it or sell it. If estate taxes are repealed, Harry may choose to keep control of the policy and use the flexibility of the universal life product to his advantage. He may decide to pay premiums or skip premiums. If a reduction in the death benefit is not a concern, he may decide to access the cash value through withdrawals and, perhaps, loans. Of course, Harry may also name a new beneficiary.
If estate taxes are not repealed and are expected to be applicable to Harry, he may decide to gift the policy to his children or to his trust. Of course, gift tax considerations, and the rule that generally applies the estate tax to life insurance that is transferred within three years of death, should be taken into account.