If a substantial portion of your wealth is tied up in a family or closely held business, you may be concerned that your estate will lack sufficient liquid assets to pay federal estate taxes. If that’s the case, your heirs may be forced to borrow funds or, in a worst-case scenario, sell the business in order to pay the tax.
For many eligible business owners, Internal Revenue Code Section 6166 provides welcome relief. It permits qualifying estates to defer a portion of their estate tax liability for up to 14 years from the date the tax is due (not the date of death). During the first four years of the deferment period, the estate pays interest only, set at only 2%, followed by 10 annual installments of principal and interest.
A deferral isn’t available for the total estate tax liability, unless a qualifying closely held business interest is the only asset in your estate. The benefit is limited to the portion of estate taxes that’s attributable to a closely held business.
Estate tax deferral is available if the value of an “interest in a closely-held business” exceeds 35% of your adjusted gross estate. To determine whether you meet the 35% test, you may only include assets actually used in conducting a trade or business — passive investments don’t count.
Active vs. passive ownership
To qualify for an estate tax deferral, a closely held business must conduct an active trade or business, rather than merely manage investment assets. Unfortunately, it’s not always easy to distinguish between the two, particularly when real estate is involved.
The IRS provided welcome guidance on this subject in a 2006 Revenue Ruling. The ruling confirms that a “passive” owner may qualify for an estate tax deferral, so long as the entity conducts an active trade or business. The ruling also clarifies that using property management companies or other independent contractors to conduct real estate activities doesn’t disqualify a business from “active” status, so long as its activities go beyond merely holding investment assets.
In determining whether a real estate entity is conducting an active trade or business, the IRS considers such factors as the amount of time owners, employees or agents devote to the business, whether the business maintains an office with regular business hours, and the extent to which owners, employees or agents are actively involved in finding tenants and negotiating leases.
Weigh your options
As you plan your estate, consider whether your family will be eligible to defer estate taxes. If you own an interest in a real estate business, you may have an opportunity to qualify it for an estate tax deferral simply by adjusting your level of activity or increasing your ownership in an entity that manages the property. Contact us for additional details.
Generally, trusts must have one or more human beneficiaries, but there’s an exception for certain “purpose” trusts. One type of purpose trust that you may be familiar with is the charitable trust. But don’t overlook the noncharitable purpose (NCP) trust as a potential tool for achieving your estate planning goals.
What is an NCP trust?
Historically, trusts were required to have human beneficiaries. Why? Because, for a trust to be valid, there must be someone to enforce it. Charitable trusts were the exception: The attorney general of the relevant jurisdiction was authorized to enforce the trust in the public interest.
Over the years, however, many U.S. states and a number of foreign jurisdictions have enacted legislation that authorizes NCP trusts. These trusts may be used to achieve a variety of purposes, such as maintaining family residences, personal property and gravesites and funding a family business.
A trust may be an NCP trust even if the grantor’s children or other heirs will ultimately receive trust property as “remaindermen.” Suppose, for example, that you create an NCP trust to maintain and exhibit your art collection. After a specified time period, the trust terminates and the collection is distributed to your children. The fact that your children will receive the art once the trust has fulfilled its purpose doesn’t change its character as an NCP trust. Nor does it render the trust valid or enforceable absent an applicable NCP trust statute.
To be valid, an NCP must meet certain requirements. Most important, it must 1) have a purpose that’s certain, reasonable and attainable, 2) not violate public policy, and 3) be capable of enforcement. Typically, an NCP trust is enforced by a designated “enforcer” — someone whose job is to ensure that the trust’s purpose is fulfilled and who has the authority to bring a court action — and/or a “trust protector,” who’s empowered to modify the trust when its purpose has been achieved or is no longer relevant.
Which jurisdiction should you choose?
Choosing the right jurisdiction for an NCP trust is critical. The permitted uses of NCP trusts, as well as their duration, vary significantly from state to state, as do the powers of a trust protector or enforcer. Most states limit an NCP trust’s duration to a term of 21 years, although some permit longer terms or even “dynasty” NCP trusts of unlimited duration.
Of course, 21 years may not be sufficient for certain purposes, such as supporting a family business or caring for horses or other animals whose life expectancies exceed 21 years. If your state doesn’t have an NCP trust statute, or if its requirements fail to meet your needs, you may be able to set up a trust under the laws of another state or even a foreign country. To do so, you must establish a connection with that jurisdiction, such as appointing a trustee who resides in the jurisdiction or moving trust assets there.
Seek professional help
Be aware that NCP trusts raise a variety of income, estate, gift and generation-skipping transfer tax issues. We can assess your situation to determine if an NCP trust is right for your estate plan.