Could An Intentionally Defective Grantor Trust (IDGT) Help You Maximize Your Financial Legacy?

Chad Holland |

If you're exploring ways to protect your wealth and ensure your estate is passed down efficiently, you may have come across Intentionally Defective Grantor Trusts (IDGTs). Despite the complex name, the concept is all about maximizing wealth for the next generation. But what exactly is an IDGT, and could it be the missing piece in your estate planning puzzle? Let's break it down and see if it's a fit for your financial legacy.

Please note: this article is intended to provide general information only. Always consult your tax and estate planning professional for advice and specific recommendations.

What Is an Intentionally Defective Grantor Trust?

An Intentionally Defective Grantor Trust, or IDGT, is a bit like a magic trick in the world of wealth management and estate planning. It's a trust that's set up in a way that seems defective, but this so-called flaw is actually a strategic move.

Here's the key: you move assets to the IDGT, and while for estate tax purposes, you no longer own them, you still pay the income taxes on those assets. Why would you do that? Because by paying those taxes, the assets in the trust can grow without being eroded by taxes. This can create more wealth for your beneficiaries down the line.

Understanding Intentionally Defective Grantor Trusts

To really grasp how an IDGT works, think of it as a two-sided coin. On one side, the trust becomes the owner of assets like stocks or real estate, which means they're out of your taxable estate. This helps you sidestep estate tax when you pass away. On the flip side, you're still on the hook for the income taxes on any revenue those assets generate. But here's the kicker: those tax payments don't count as gifts, so you won't tap into your lifetime gift tax exemption or cause anyone to pay additional gift taxes. It's a savvy way to reduce your estate's value without incurring extra costs, and it keeps more of your wealth where you want it — with your heirs.

What Makes a Grantor Trust Intentionally Defective?

The term "intentionally defective" might sound alarming, but in this context, it's a strategic advantage. A grantor trust becomes defective when you, the grantor, keep certain powers over the trust. This could be the power to swap trust assets with personal assets of equal value or the ability to borrow from the trust without excessive formalities. With regard to tax liability, these retained powers mean the trust's income is taxable to you as the grantor, not to the beneficiary of the trust (whoever you decide they should be). This intentional flaw is what allows the trust's assets to grow unimpeded for your beneficiaries.

What are the Estate Tax Benefits of IDGTs?

As previously noted, the assets are not subject to estate tax. That's because you are not the owner of the trust. The trust is its own entity, so once formed, anything in it is not included in the grantor's estate for estate tax purposes.

Transferring Assets to the IDGT

When you transfer assets — particularly those with high potential for appreciation, like stocks or real estate — to an IDGT, you're essentially removing them from your taxable estate. This means their future growth occurs outside of your estate, as previously mentioned. Because of this, it's important to pay attention to moving assets; it's critical you do it properly.

You can either gift the assets directly, which might tap into your lifetime gift tax exemption, or you can sell them to the trust.

How do you Sell Assets to the IDGT?

Selling to the trust, typically in exchange for an interest-bearing promissory note, is a clever way to avoid immediate gift taxes. This method is particularly effective when interest rates are low, as it allows the trust to benefit more from the asset's appreciation than the cost of interest paid. Moreover, since the sale is to a trust of which you are the grantor, it doesn't trigger capital gains taxes, a common concern in asset transfer. This strategy not only ensures that your assets continue to grow for the benefit of your beneficiaries but also helps in further reducing your taxable estate, as the income taxes you pay on the trust's earnings effectively serve as additional, tax-free gifts to the trust. In this way, transferring assets to an IDGT has the potential to enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of your estate planning.

You can simply decide to transfer assets into the trust for nothing in return. However, there's another strategy you might want to consider. You can instead sell appreciated assets to the trust without facing immediate tax consequences — that's the beauty of an IDGT. When you sell your assets to an IDGT, you're essentially locking in their current value for estate tax purposes. Here's how it works: instead of selling your assets in the open market and facing capital gains taxes, you sell them to your IDGT in exchange for a promissory note. This note is set at a fixed interest rate, often lower than commercial rates. The trust pays you back over time, but the assets — say, a rapidly appreciating stock or real estate — stay in the trust, growing tax-free. This means the future growth of these assets won't inflate the value of your estate, potentially saving your heirs a significant amount in estate taxes.


Is an IDGT an Irrevocable Trust?

Yes, this is an irrevocable trust. That means transfers cannot be (easily) reversed, so they should be considered permanent. This is quite different from a revocable trust, where the grantor of the trust is allowed to remove assets out of the trust if desired.

Does an IDGT File its own Tax Return or Pay Income Taxes?

These IDGTs are treated in a unique way by IRS regulations when it comes to income taxes. Unlike typical irrevocable trusts, an IDGT does not file its own tax return or pay income taxes. Instead, the person who sets up the trust, known as the grantor, is treated as the owner for federal and state income tax purposes. This means that all income generated by the trust's assets is taxed to the grantor, not the trust itself. Therefore, a separate income tax return usually does not have to be filed for the IDGT.

This arrangement is a deliberate design of the IDGT, achieved by drafting the trust with specific provisions that make it a grantor trust for income tax purposes but an irrevocable trust for estate tax purposes. The fact that the grantor pays the income tax is a strategic benefit, as it allows the assets within the trust to grow without being diminished by tax payments. This growth enhances the value that will eventually pass to the beneficiaries, effectively reducing the grantor's taxable estate and benefiting the heirs.

Can an IDGT Help with Asset Protection?

Yes, asset protection is another benefit of transferring holdings into an irrevocable trust. Because you no longer can exert control over the trust, these assets are normally safe from creditors or other threats to your wealth. Even though you as the grantor pay the income taxes, this does not make the assets yours again.

Then, as long as the trust is active, the assets are also normally safeguarded for the trust beneficiaries.

Can an IDGT Make Distributions to Beneficiaries?

Yes, an Intentionally Defective Grantor Trust (IDGT) can make distributions to beneficiaries. However, the specifics of how and when these distributions occur will depend on the terms you set forth in the trust agreement. Typically, the trust document will outline the conditions under which the trustee can make distributions to beneficiaries. These conditions can be based on various factors, such as the beneficiary's age or the occurrence of specific milestones. Or you can draft a provision where distributions can be made at the discretion of the trustee.

It's important to note that while IDGTs allow for distributions, any distributions made to beneficiaries during the grantor's lifetime may have gift tax implications. Since the grantor is considered the owner of the trust for income tax purposes, any distribution to a beneficiary is treated as a gift from the grantor. This means that the grantor may need to file a gift tax return and potentially use part of their lifetime gift tax exemption.

The ability to make distributions is one of the flexible features of an IDGT, allowing the grantor to provide for beneficiaries while still achieving the trust's primary goal of reducing estate taxes. However, careful planning and understanding of the tax implications are crucial to ensure that the trust operates as intended and provides the maximum benefit to both the grantor and the beneficiaries.

Does an Intentionally Defective Grantor Trust Get a Step Up in Basis?

An Intentionally Defective Grantor Trust (IDGT) does not receive a step-up in basis for the assets inside the trust at the time of the grantor's death. This is a key distinction from assets transferred directly to beneficiaries through a will or a revocable trust.

In a typical estate scenario, assets that are inherited receive a step-up in basis to their fair market value at the time of the original owner's death. This step-up can significantly reduce capital gains taxes when the beneficiary later sells the asset. However, with an IDGT, since the assets are transferred to the trust during the grantor's lifetime and the trust is considered irrevocable for estate tax purposes, these assets usually retain their original cost basis.

This means that if the beneficiaries of the IDGT sell the assets, they may be subject to capital gains taxes based on the original purchase price of the assets, not their value at the time of the grantor's death. It's an important consideration when deciding whether an IDGT is the right tool for estate planning, especially for assets that have appreciated significantly in value.

What are the Cons of This Type of Grantor Trust?

Grantor trusts, including Intentionally Defective Grantor Trusts (IDGTs), offer significant benefits in estate planning, including relief from federal estate tax. However, this type of trust also comes with certain drawbacks that need to be considered:

  1. Income Tax Liability for the Grantor: Depending upon your specific circumstances, one of the primary disadvantages might be that the grantor pays income taxes on the trust's earnings. This can be a substantial financial responsibility, especially if the trust holds high-income-producing assets.

  2. Irrevocability: Grantor trusts are typically irrevocable. This is very different from revocable trusts such as living trusts, where the grantor retains certain powers including the ability to change the trust. Once the trust is created and funded, the grantor cannot change their mind and cause the trust to return the assets. This loss of control and flexibility can be a significant downside for an irrevocable grantor trust.

  3. No Step-Up in Basis: As mentioned earlier, assets in an IDGT do not receive a step-up in basis for the assets contributed to the trust upon the grantor's death. These tax rules can result in higher capital gains taxes for beneficiaries when they sell the trust property, especially if these assets have appreciated significantly.

  4. Complexity and Costs: Setting up and maintaining a trust of this type may involve higher initial and ongoing administrative costs due to grantor trust rules. This includes legal fees for drafting the trust document and potential costs related to managing the trust's assets.

  5. Potential Gift Tax Consequences: If the trust makes distributions to beneficiaries during the grantor's lifetime, these distributions may be treated as gifts, potentially using up the grantor's lifetime gift tax exemption and necessitating the filing of gift tax returns.

  6. Risk of Unforeseen Changes in Tax Laws: Tax laws are subject to change, and future legislative changes could potentially impact the benefits associated with grantor trusts.

It's important for individuals considering this type of grantor trust to weigh these potential drawbacks against the benefits, ideally in consultation with a qualified estate planning attorney and financial advisor. Understanding both the advantages and disadvantages is crucial to making an informed decision that aligns with one's estate planning goals.

Conclusion: Navigating the Complexities of IDGTs for a Lasting Legacy

In the intricate world of estate planning, Intentionally Defective Grantor Trusts stand out as a powerful tool for high net-worth individuals aiming to maximize their legacy while minimizing tax burdens. The strategic use of IDGTs estate tax exemption can lead to significant savings, allowing for the efficient transfer of wealth to future generations. However, the decision to utilize an IDGT should not be taken lightly. It requires a deep understanding of its unique features, including the responsibility for income taxes, the irrevocable nature of the trust, and the absence of a step-up in basis for assets.

The complexities and potential drawbacks of IDGTs underscore the importance of thorough planning and consultation with experienced estate planning professionals. Each financial situation is unique, and the suitability of an IDGT varies based on individual circumstances and goals.

That's one significant benefit of working with specialists, and that's one of the unique ways we help our clients at Holland Capital. We take a team approach and bring in highly specialized partners with the estate planning expertise to help find the right strategy. That way, we can help you maximize your results, minimize surprises and help you feel confident about your financial legacy.