Irrevocable Trusts: Pay The Trustee

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away I remember reading an IRS Private Letter Ruling that had about it the worst method an insured/grantor could use to pay premiums on a policy inside an irrevocable trust.
He was the sole owner of a business that each year cut a check directly to the carrier for the total amount due. The taxpayer was asking for a determination as to whether this quick-and-easy A-to-B transaction for maintaining a policy outside of his taxable estate would be deemed an incident-of-ownership resulting in the inclusion of the benefit in his taxable estate at death.

I’ve searched half-heartedly and unsuccessfully for the ruling. But if memory serves me well, which it well may not, the Service did some “deeming”, but not in the unfavorable direction of finding an incident-of-ownership anywhere in the works.

It treated the taxpayer’s monetary circumlocution as: first, deemed income to the taxpayer from the company that must be reported as income; second, a deemed gift from the taxpayer to the trust that must be reported as such; then third, a deemed premium payment by the trustee to the carrier – all without giving rise to any incident-of-ownership in the grantor/insured. Well, how about that?
It’s tempting to jump on such reasoning when it becomes bothersome to set up a trust checking account, or go through the multi-step process of actually gifting money to the trust and hoping that the godparent of the beneficiaries (who graciously offered to serve as trustee) doesn’t forget to pay premiums in the years following his or her retirement to the beach. But there are some serious concerns created by the convoluted route taken by the premium in the illusive PLR mentioned.
If avoiding gift taxation is dependent on use of available annual exclusions then two things are necessary to qualify for protection. The beneficiaries must receive notice of their right to withdraw contributions made on their behalf, usually accomplished through timely “Crummey letters”. More important, the trustee should be in a position to actually fulfill requests from beneficiaries should they choose to exercise their Crummey withdrawal privilege.
If the only asset in the trust is the policy and the cash for premiums that constitute the annual gift merely flies over the trust each year, the Service is in a strong position to argue that the present interest necessary to qualify for the exclusion is only an illusion.
In addition, a properly drafted irrevocable trust implemented to keep death benefits free of estate taxation will only allow and not require a trustee to purchase life insurance on the grantor’s life. This avoids any argument of grantor control over the policy. However, if each year, premiums are paid directly to the carrier the grantor has, in effect, forced the trustee to purchase coverage. So, how do you spell a-u-d-i-t?
Too often shortcuts are taken in the establishment of irrevocable trusts and too often insufficient attention is given to their ongoing administration. While it is not the legal responsibility of the insurance advisor to see that all is done according to Hoyle, it should be his or her annual practice to make sure that the proper parties are fulfilling theirs.
Contact our Advanced Markets Team with questions you have concerning your casework that involves trust planning or estate and gift tax concerns, at 706-614-3796 or