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Texas Estate Planning Blog

Estate Tax Planning
Shawn McCammon
Shawn McCammon

How Does a Spousal Lifetime Access Trust Work?

June 1, 2023
Different people have different needs, and for most people, starting with basic legal documents, such as a will and power of attorney, are a great place to start and can make a big difference.

Making plans for the events of the future not only saves your family time and money but will also provide peace of mind to you and your beneficiaries, advises the article “Learn about options for estate planning and wealth transfer” from The Tennessean. One of the tools used in estate planning is the Spousal Lifetime Access Trust (SLAT), an especially useful trust now that lifetime exemptions are set to decrease at the end of 2025.

No federal estate taxes are owed for individuals with assets up to $12.92 million and married couples with $25.84 million in 2023. However, federal estate taxes are owed at a maximum rate of 40% for any wealth above these amounts.

This is of particular interest right now. The Tax Cut and Jobs Act of 2017 (TCJA) doubled the federal gift and estate tax exemption per spouse, allowing a married couple to exempt up to $25.84 million and individuals $12.92 million. However, this exemption amount will expire on December 31, 2025, decreasing by about half.

It’s a “use it or lose it” proposition right now, so taxpayers who want to take advantage of these historically high exemption levels should consider taking action before the expiration date. One way to do that is with a Spousal Lifetime Access Trust.

A SLAT is an irrevocable trust where one spouse gifts assets to the other beneficiary spouse. The beneficiary spouse may receive distributions during their lifetime, while the SLAT is removed from the gross estate and isn’t subject to estate taxes upon the beneficiary’s death. It’s a valuable estate planning tool, as it permits taxpayers to gift assets while retaining limited access to the funds through their spouse.

If a person gifts assets to an irrevocable trust, they can’t take the assets back or change the terms of the trust.  Therefore, they’ve given up control over the asset. However, a SLAT provides indirect access through the spouse, who may receive income and principal distributions from the trust during their lifetime.

A SLAT needs to be properly drafted by an experienced estate planning attorney, and they do come with some risks. For example, if the beneficiary spouse passes away suddenly, the spouse may lose access to their SLAT payouts. If the couple divorces, the spouse may lose access to assets, unless the trust includes a provision stating that the trust benefits current and future spouses, which allows indirect access to be regained after remarrying. In addition, assets held in a SLAT don’t receive a step-up in cost basis upon the donor spouse’s death. This might lead to increased capital gains tax liability for remainder beneficiaries.

There are a number of intricacies to consider when exploring the use of a SLAT as part of your estate plan. To ensure that the SLAT is appropriate, consult an experienced estate planning attorney.

Reference: The Tennessean (May 7, 2023) “Learn about options for estate planning and wealth transfer”

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