Thanks to tax cuts made during the Trump administration, Americans can give or hand down nearly $13 million in assets without paying federal estate tax. Only 0.2% of taxpayers have to worry about this tax, and they hire top-notch accountants and lawyers to pay as little as possible.
“This is a wealthy person’s playground problem,” Robert Strauss, partner at the law firm Weinstock Manion, told Insider.
Some of these tax avoidance techniques might be eyebrow-raising, yet they are perfectly legal. For instance, taxpayers can put homes and country homes in trusts that last decades, and any appreciation in the property’s value doesn’t count toward their taxable estate. Life insurance, probably the least sexy area of financial planning, can be used to save tens of millions of dollars in taxes if bought from issuers in the Cayman Islands and Bermuda.
In the next two years, estate planning will rev up into high gear as the end of the Trump tax cuts approaches. Currently, individuals and married couples can gift or bequeath $12.92 million and $25.84 million, respectively, before a 40% federal estate tax kicks in. But that exemption, barring further legislation, will be cut in half at the end of 2025.
Here are six little-known techniques that the richest taxpayers use to pay less to Uncle Sam:
Qualified personal residence trusts, better known as QPRTs, effectively freeze the value of a real estate property for tax purposes. The homeowner puts the primary residence or vacation home in the trust and retains ownership for however many years they choose. When the trust ends, the property is transferred out of the taxable estate. The estate only has to pay gift tax on the value of the property when the trust was formed even if the home has appreciated by millions in value.
QPRTs have become more popular in the past year as interest rate hikes confer another tax benefit. It seems too good to be true, but there are a few strings attached.
From the Wrigley family behind the titular chewing gum brand to Jeff Bezos’ mother, an Amazon investor, some of America’s wealthiest use generation-skipping trusts to avoid paying wealth transfer taxes and provide for future heirs.
These so-called dynasty trusts allow taxpayers to pass along wealth to generations that haven’t even been born yet and only be subject to the 40% generation-skipping tax once. Many states have eased trust limits to get the business of the wealthy, with Florida and Wyoming allowing dynasty trusts to last as long as 1,000 years, which spans about 40 generations.
The heirs don’t own the trust assets but rather have lifetime rights to the trust’s income and real estate. These trusts even protect assets from future creditors and shield them in the event of a divorce.
Charitable remainder trusts (CRTs) allow moneyed Americans to have their cake and eat it too.
Plenty of affluent taxpayers deduct charitable donations from their taxable income, but the ultra-rich can parlay their philanthropy into guaranteed income for life.
Taxpayers put assets in the trust, collect annual payments for as long as they live, and get a partial tax break. Only 10% of what remains in the CRT has to go to a designated charity to pass muster with the IRS.
These trusts can be funded with a wide range of assets, from yachts to closely held businesses, making them particularly useful for entrepreneurs looking to cash out and do good.
Unlike QPRTs and CRTs, this technique is highly scrutinized by the IRS and comes with a lot of hoops to jump through.
Families that are asset-rich but cash-poor and facing an estate tax bill can either rush to sell those assets to make the nine-month deadline or take a loan.
The estate can make an upfront deduction on the interest of these Graegin loans, named after a 1988 Tax Court case. Further, if illiquid assets make up at least 35% of the estate’s value, families can defer estate tax for as long as 14 years, paying in installments with interest, and effectively taking a loan from the government.
Graegin loans are prime targets for auditors and have led to years-long legal battles, but the savings can be worth it for rich families.
Private-placement life insurance, or PPLI, can be used to pass on assets from stocks to yachts to heirs without incurring any estate tax.
In short, an attorney sets up a trust for a wealthy client. The trust owns the life-insurance policy that’s created offshore. The assets in the trust are treated as premiums, and if structured correctly, the benefit and assets in the policy are bequeathed free of estate tax.
It’s only relevant to the ultra-wealthy, often requiring $5 million in upfront premiums as well as a small army of professionals to set up and administer, including trust and estate attorneys, asset managers, custodians, and tax advisors.
Rich Americans have managed to dodge nearly every tax reform proposed during the Biden presidency, but Senator Ron Wyden says he is investigating PPLI and the industry’s leaders, including Blackstone-owned wealth manager Lombard International.
The down market has one silver lining for high-net-worth individuals. It is an optimal time to create new trusts as people can transfer depressed assets, whether they are stocks or bitcoin, at a lower tax basis.
The long-favored grantor-retained annuity trusts (GRATs) can confer big tax savings during recessions. These trusts pay a fixed annuity during the trust term, which is usually two years, and any appreciation of the assets’ value is not subject to estate tax.
GRATs have picked up in popularity in the past year as the Federal Reserve has raised interest rates, which eat into the returns on these trusts.