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Estate Planning Strategies in a Low-Interest-Rate Environment

The federal government requires the use of certain published interest rates to value various items used in estate planning, such as an income, annuity, or remainder interest in a trust. The government also specifies interest rates that a taxpayer may be deemed to use in connection with certain installment sales or intra-family loans. These rates are currently at or near historic lows, presenting several estate planning opportunities.

Low interest rates favor certain estate planning strategies over others. For example, low interest rates are generally beneficial for a grantor retained annuity trust (GRAT), a charitable lead annuity trust (CLAT), an installment sale, and a low-interest loan. On the other hand, low interest rates generally have a detrimental effect on a qualified personal residence trust (QPRT) and a charitable gift annuity. But interest rates have little or no effect on a charitable remainder unitrust (CRUT).

Grantor retained annuity trust (GRAT)

In a GRAT, you transfer property to a trust, but retain a right to annuity payments for a term of years. After the trust term ends, the remaining trust property passes to your designated beneficiaries, such as family members. The value of the gift of the remainder interest is discounted for gift tax purposes to reflect that it will be received in the future. Also, if you survive the trust term, the trust property is not included in your gross estate for estate tax purposes. If the rate of appreciation is greater than the IRS interest rate, a higher value of trust assets escapes gift and estate taxation. Consequently, the lower the IRS interest rate, the more effective this technique can be.

Charitable lead annuity trust (CLAT)

In a CLAT, you transfer property to a trust, giving a charity the right to annuity payments for a term of years. After the trust term ends, the remaining trust property passes to your designated beneficiaries, such as family members. This trust is similar to a GRAT, except that you get a gift tax charitable deduction. Also, if the CLAT is structured so that you are taxed on trust income, you receive an up-front income tax charitable deduction for the gift of the annuity interest. Like with a GRAT, the lower the IRS interest rate, the more effective this technique can be.

Installment sale

If you enter into an installment sale with family members, you can generally defer the taxation of any gain on the property sold until the installment payments are received. However, if the family member resells the property within two years of your installment sale, any deferred gain will generally be accelerated. The two-year limit does not apply to stocks that are sold on an established securities market.

You are generally required to charge an adequate interest rate (based on IRS published rates) in return for the opportunity to pay in installments, or interest will be deemed to be charged for income tax and gift tax purposes. However, with the current low interest rates, your family members can pay for the property in installments while paying only a minimal interest cost for the benefit of doing so.

Low-interest loan

A low-interest loan to family members might also be a useful strategy. You are generally required to charge an adequate interest rate on the loan for the use of the money, or interest will be deemed to be charged for income tax and gift tax purposes. However, with the current low interest rates, you can provide loans at a very low rate, and family members can effectively keep any earnings in excess of the interest they are required to pay you.

Effect of low rates on other strategies

  • Charitable remainder unitrust: You transfer property to a trust, retaining a stream of payments for life or a number of years, after which the remainder passes to charity. You receive a current charitable deduction for the gift of the remainder interest. Interest rates have no effect if payments are made annually at the beginning of each year, and low interest rates have only a minimal detrimental effect if payments are made in any other way.
  • Qualified personal residence trust: You transfer your personal residence to a trust, retaining the right to live in the home for a period of years, after which the residence passes to your designated beneficiaries, such as family members. The value of the gift of the remainder interest is discounted for gift tax purposes to reflect that it will be received in the future. The lower the IRS interest rate, the less effective this technique can be.

Charitable gift annuity: You transfer property to a charity in return for the charity’s promise to make annuity payments for your life (or for the lifetimes of you and your spouse). You receive a current charitable deduction for the gift of the remainder interest. The lower the interest rate, the lower the amount of your charitable deduction. Also, charities have generally been forced to reduce payout rates offered because of economic uncertainties and the low-interest-rate environment.

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