Wealth & Risk Management Blog

William Byrnes (Texas A&M) tax & compliance articles

Incidents of Ownership and Burden on the Estate

Posted by William Byrnes on August 12, 2013


Why is this Topic Important to Wealth Managers?   Discusses estate tax considerations in regards to life insurance policies.  Also, includes a detailed dialogue of the incidents of ownership concept. 

What do most wealth managers try to avoid when planning with life insurance and trusts?

That the Gross Estate for Estate Tax calculations would include the death benefit from the policy in the estate.[1]

What are some common ways to avoid this dilemma when using a trust and life insurance in regards to estate planning?[2]

The insured should never own the policy; “it should be owned from inception” by the trust or third party.

  • A trustee takes “all the actions to purchase the policy on the life of the insured”.
  • The trustee should be “authorized but not required to purchase insurance on the life of anyone whose life the trust’s beneficiaries have an insurable interest.”
  • The trust explicitly prohibits the insured from obtaining any interest whatsoever that the trust may purchase on the insured’s life.
  • The trust does not require, but rather permits the premium payments.
  • Trust is well funded, beyond that of one year of premium payments.
  • The trustee acts in the best interest of the beneficiaries.

A revisionary interest will give rise to incidence of ownership [3], which could include the insured’s right to; [4]

  • Cancel, assign or surrender the policy.
  • Obtain a loan on the cash value of the policy or pledge the policy as collateral for a loan.
  • Change the beneficiary, change contingent beneficiaries, change beneficiaries share of the proceeds.

When discussing incidents of ownership, naturally the 3 year rule should be further expounded.[5] “The 3-year ‘bring-back’ rule” is applicable, “with respect to dispositions of retained interests in property which otherwise would have been includable in the gross estate”.[6]  As discussed in AUS Main Libraries Section 8, C—Lifetime Gifts Of Insurance And Annuities-“Gifts Within Three Years Of Death, essentially, the rule as it applies to life insurance means that any policy transferred out of the estate of the insured within 3 years of his/her death, the policy proceeds are brought back into the gross estate for estate tax calculations.

It is generally accepted that “the trust should be established first, with a transfer of cash from the grantor to be used to pay the initial premium” or a few years of premiums.  “The trustee would then submit the formal application, with the trust as the original applicant and owner.”  Generally, the insured will “participate only to the extent of executing required health questionnaires and submitting to any required physical examination.”  Again the key is that the, “grantor/insured not have possessed at any time anything that might be deemed an incident of ownership with respect to the policy.” [7]

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