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Credit Shelter Trusts Aren't Just for the Super Wealthy
- October 10th, 2023
Credit shelter trusts are a way to take full advantage of state and federal estate tax exemptions. Although such trusts may appear needless unless you are a multi-millionaire, there are still reasons for those of more modest means to do this kind of planning, and one of the main ones is state taxes.
The first $12.92 million (in 2023) of an estate is exempt from federal estate taxes. So, theoretically, a husband and wife would have no estate tax if their estate is less than $25.84 million.
The estate tax is also “portable” between spouses. This means that if the first spouse to die does not use all of their $12.92 million exemption, the estate of the surviving spouse may use it (provided the surviving spouse makes an election on the first spouse’s estate tax return).
However, if one spouse dies and leaves everything to the surviving spouse, the surviving spouse may have an estate that is greater than $12.92 million - plus whatever is left over from the deceased spouse’s exemption - or an estate that is higher than the applicable threshold in their state (assuming the state has an estate or inheritance tax).
When the surviving spouse dies, any part of the estate over that threshold will be subject to estate tax. In other words, without proper planning, the exemption of the first spouse to die is lost. The way to preserve both spouses’ exemptions has been to create a credit shelter trust (also called an A/B or bypass trust).
How a Credit Shelter Trust Works
Many states have an estate or inheritance tax, and the thresholds are usually far lower than the current federal one.
Let’s say that a couple -- Jennifer and Lucas -- lives in State X. That state has retained an estate tax on all estates worth more than $1 million (the state’s exemption). Looking at just the federal exemption of $12.92 million (in 2023) and the ability for the first spouse to die to transfer their unused credit to the other spouse, it would appear that the couple would have no tax issues if their combined estate is under $12.92 million.
However, if Lucas is the first spouse who passes away, on his death, he passes everything to Jennifer. She may end up with an estate well over the state’s $1 million threshold. This would make her subject to a substantial state tax upon her own death. In effect, the couple has lost the state’s “unified credit” of the first spouse to pass away.
Standard estate tax planning is to split an estate that is more than the prevailing state or federal exemption amount between spouses. Each spouse then executes a trust to “shelter” the first exemption amount in the estate of the first spouse to pass away.
While the terms of such trusts vary, they generally provide that the trust income will be paid to the surviving spouse, and the trust principal will be available at the discretion of the trustee if needed by the surviving spouse.
In this example, since the surviving spouse (Jennifer) does not control distributions of principal, the trust funds will not be included in her estate at her death and will not be subject to tax. This way, in State X, Jennifer and Lucas can protect up to $2 million from estate taxation while still making the entire estate available to Jennifer, the surviving spouse, if needed.
Review Your Plan With an Estate Planning Professional
The rising federal estate tax exemption means that many older trusts drawn up for married couples likely contain outdated estate-splitting provisions. An estate plan with out-of-date terms may cost them dearly in state or federal taxes or both. Couples would do well to get in touch with a competent estate planning or elder law attorney. An attorney with experience in this area can review any of their revocable trusts that contain credit shelter provisions.
Even if your state has no estate or inheritance tax, there are other reasons to have a credit shelter trust. The include the following:
- It shields funds in trust from creditors
- It protects children’s inheritance if the surviving spouse remarries
- It helps avoid administrative headaches
- Congress can decide to change the estate tax
Find an estate planning attorney near you today for further guidance.
Created date: 04/18/2013