On the estate planning side of my business, something I see with some regularity when I first meet with a married couple who already have a trust in place is that they may not understand what exactly happens after the first of them dies. For instance, they may not realize their trust splits into multiple trusts at that time, one of which restricts the use and enjoyment of the funds in that trust for the surviving spouse. Sometimes this is a done for good reason. Sometimes this is done because that was the template on the lawyer’s computer. The latter can be a dangerous situation.
One reason to split a trust after the first death, at least historically, had to do with tax savings. This “A/B split” was designed to take advantage of the federal estate tax exemption at the time of both deaths. Now, with the portability of the first spouse’s exemption, the A/B split is falling into disuse. That being said, the law could change in the future, so you still need to plan around the contingencies. But, this post is not about the A/B split. This is about the other common split: the one between the Survivor’s Trust and the Marital Deduction Trust (also known as a QTIP Trust).
The purpose of the Marital Deduction Trust split is not really tax-driven, although it does affect estate taxes. The purpose generally is the desire to exercise some dead hand control over your property after you pass. By way of background, the federal estate tax laws allow your surviving spouse to pay zero dollars ($0) in estate taxes for anything you transfer to him/her outright at the time of your death. This is the Marital Deduction. The surviving spouse’s estate will probably have to pay estate taxes on this amount of the time of his/her death, but at least at the time of the first death, estate taxes are avoided/deferred. To make the Marital Deduction work, however, the surviving spouse has to receive a non-terminable interest in the property.
In non-lawyer speak, that means the surviving spouse has to own the assets/property outright and can do whatever they want with it. That includes bequeath it to the pool boy or girl. If, however, you want your spouse to get this Marital Deduction, but you want to make sure that your property still goes to who you say it should after the surviving spouse dies, then the Marital Deduction Trust comes into play. It takes advantage of a narrow allowance in estate tax law for claiming the deduction while still restricting the ownership of the assets. For all assets in the Marital Deduction Trust, the surviving spouse cannot change who it goes to; the trust is irrevocable. The surviving spouse can enjoy the income and some of the principle for his/her lifetime, but can’t transfer it to someone else. In other words, the surviving spouse’s interest in the assets is no longer “terminable.” That is where QTIP comes from: Qualified Terminable Interest Property Trust.
If this is something you want as a part of your estate plan, that is great. But the problem comes if you did not want this as part of your estate and you find out you have a mandatory QTIP split only after the death of your spouse. On top of the grief of losing a loved one, now you learn that half your stuff will be tied up for the rest of your life. If that was not by intentional design on your and your spouse’s part, that can be a huge inconvenience, to say the least.
Whenever I draft or review a trust, I make sure to explain to clients the exact consequences of their plan and ensure that it reflects their wishes. If you would like assistance in reviewing your estate plan or drafting one, please contact our law firm. We serve clients all over the Northern California area from Modoc County to Yuba County.