When You Want Retirement Plans to be Payable to Trusts

 In Retirement Plans

There are a lot of reasons you may want some or all of your retirement plan assets to go into trust for the benefit of your heirs, including:

  • Estate tax planning.
  • In a second (or subsequent) relationship, to provide for your current partner or spouse but to make sure remaining funds go to your children.
  • To protect inherited IRAs from creditors (the Supreme Court has ruled that inherited IRAs do not have the same creditor protection that your own retirement plans have).
  • In case your children inherit your retirement plan while they’re too young to manage it.
  • To make sure your heirs don’t spend the money too quickly and lose the benefit of deferred taxation.
  • If your child or another beneficiary has special needs.

Unfortunately, what’s already too complicated gets even more complicated when a trust becomes involved. To understand this, you will need to learn about three concepts: designated beneficiaries, conduit trusts and accumulation trusts.

Designated Beneficiaries

For a beneficiary of an IRA or 401(k) plan to receive the benefits of an inherited IRA or a spousal IRA that permit them to spread withdrawals out through the rest of her life, she must be a “designated” beneficiary. This is not at all difficult when individuals are named; they are automatically designated beneficiaries. A charity is not a designated beneficiary and must withdraw all funds within five years of the donor’s death, but this is not a problem since the charity will not be taxed on these withdrawals.

Matters get more complicated, however, when a trust is involved. In order to qualify as a designated beneficiary, the trust must meet the following requirements:

  • It must be valid under state law.
  • It must be irrevocable or become irrevocable at the grantor’s death, which is the case with revocable trusts.
  • The ultimate beneficiaries of the trust must be identifiable. You can say “my children,” since anyone should be able to figure out who they are, but you cannot say “it’s up to my trustee,” since then we can’t know who the trustee will choose.
  • None of the ultimate beneficiaries can be a charity (or other non-person), since a charity cannot be a “designated” beneficiary.
  • The trust documentation must be provided to the IRA custodian (the financial institution) by the October 31st following the year in which the owner died. Trust documentation includes the trust document, a list of the current and contingent beneficiaries and a certification by the trustee that all of the above requirements have been met.

These requirements do not seem so hard to satisfy. But keep reading – determining the ultimate beneficiaries of the trust can be difficult.

Conduit or “See Through” Trust

The easiest way to make sure that a trust works is to require that all required minimum distributions (RMDs) be distributed out from the trust each year to a named beneficiary or several named beneficiaries.  If the trust provides that all of the income must be paid to a single person, such as a surviving spouse, the annual RMDs will be based on her life expectancy. If it provides that the income must be distributed to a number of different beneficiaries, then the RMDs will be based on the age of the oldest beneficiary. But don’t include a charity as an income beneficiary, since a charity is not a designated beneficiary and that will disqualify the trust entirely.

So, with the one caveat of not including a charity, this works well as long as the trust provides that all the RMD income be distributed each year to known beneficiaries. The IRS does not look past the current income beneficiaries in determining whether everyone qualifies as a designated beneficiary.

But what if you don’t want all of the income to be distributed? For instance, for estate tax reasons you would like the trust to grow in value. You may not want one or more beneficiaries to have control over the funds because you don’t think they will spend them wisely. Or, in the case of someone receiving public benefits, the distributions would make him ineligible with drastic consequences. You may be concerned about creditor protection. For all of these reasons you may opt for an accumulation trust rather than a conduit trust.

Accumulation Trust

An accumulation trust does not require the annual distribution of RMDs, instead giving the trustee discretion over whether, when and how much to distribute to beneficiaries. With such trusts, in determining whether all beneficiaries qualify as designated – whether they are identifiable individuals – and who is the oldest for purposes of the RMDs, the IRS will look to those beneficiaries named to receive the ultimate trust distribution. So, if your trust, says that it will continue for the life of your spouse and that the remainder will go to your children, the IRS will look to make sure that each child is identifiable. Presumably your spouse (except in some second marriages) will be older than your children and RMDs will be based on her life expectancy. If the trust says that it will continue until all of your children have passed away and that then everything will be distributed to your grandchildren, this is okay so long as at least one grandchild is living at your death. In this instance the oldest grandchild will be identifiable, so it works.

However, if all of the potential beneficiaries cannot be identified upon your death or a charity is a potential beneficiary, that could disqualify the trust, requiring all retirement plans to be liquidated within five years of death. In short, it’s much easier to use a conduit trust, but you may need to use an accumulation trust in situations where you do not want the mandatory minimum distributions distributed outright to the beneficiary. This can be the case under the following circumstances:

  • In a second marriage where you do not want all of the RMD funds to go to the surviving spouse, but you do want them available to him if needed.
  • For tax reasons where you do not want the RMD funds in the surviving spouse’s or your children’s taxable estates. (The latter will apply to very few people.)
  • Where the beneficiaries are minors or too young to responsibly handle the funds.
  • Where you would like to protect the RMDs as well as the principal from the reach of the beneficiaries’ creditors.
  • Special needs trusts where either for financial management purposes or to maintain eligibility for public benefits the RMDs should not be distributed directly to the beneficiary.

Given the complications of accumulation trusts and the potential that they could be disqualified by mistake, in planning we often try to avoid their use. For instance, if parents have one child with special needs and two who do not need the same protection, we may discuss having the retirement plans go to the two who do not need a trust with non-retirement funds going into the special needs trust. Of course, this can make it more difficult to make everyone’s share of the estate equal, especially if the retirement plans constitute a large portion of the parents’ estate. In such cases, we will draft special needs trusts designed as accumulation trusts. (Then, we often have the problem of explaining the somewhat arcane provisions in the trusts as well as our higher fees creating such a complicated plan, but we do the best we can.)

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