A Novel SECURE Design for a Tax-Deferred Retirement Accounts “Conduit” Trust

This post addresses a novel written irrevocable trust planning option under the current SECURE Act (effective beginning December 20, 2019). The SECURE Act eliminated the prior-law longer pay-out stretch option and, in general terms, allows only a 10-year payout period for non-spouse beneficiaries who inherit a retirement account from a deceased primary owner. [There are some other limited exceptions that allow a longer payout than this 10-year period that I do not address for purposes of this post.]

This planning centers on both Roth and non-Roth income tax-deferred retirement accounts, such as, but not limited to, corporate or self-employed (“Keogh”) pension, profit-sharing, defined-benefit, and stock bonus plans, SEPs, 403(b) plans, IRA and Roth IRA plans, 401(k) and Roth 401(k) plans, 457 plans. This trust design can work collectively for both Roth and non-Roth accounts.

An Example: You have decent sized non-Roth and Roth IRAs. You presently have four children, all different ages. The SECURE Act tax-law limitations generally now eliminate — after your death — the longer life-expectancy payout periods for beneficiaries for these retirement accounts; now limited in most cases to a 10-year maximum payout period. What is an effective planning option for your retirement accounts in this situation? For purposes of this blog post, I use both a Roth IRA and non-Roth IRA as examples.

For both these Roth and non-Roth IRA accounts, I recently designed a written tax-deferred retirement accounts trust that is a good SECURE option. [NOTE: this blog post is not a primer with fundamentals on how to set-up and use a trust for retirement accounts. It merely highlights key points to consider for this recent new trust design.]

The essence of this retirement account trust design is that:

(1) The trust agreement is a sprinkle trust that allows the trustee to make trust beneficiary distributions of periodic retirement account withdrawals to and among the named class of beneficiaries, depending on their needs, own marginal income tax rates, etc., in equal, unequal, or in no amount as to the class members;

(2) This is a key design point: The trust agreement must be drafted purposely so as to avoid each trust beneficiary from having substantially separate and independent trust shares. The reason is to enable trust distributions to carry out DNI only to those beneficiaries who, in a given year, actually receive distributions from the trust. Otherwise, for example, separate and independent shares can result in one beneficiary ending up with a trust distribution in excess of the trust’s total DNI, causing the trust to be taxed on such income at the trust’s substantially higher compressed marginal income tax rates. By contrast, the goal is for the trustee to sprinkle distributions from the trust to and among the class of trust beneficiaries depending on their needs, their own marginal income tax rates, etc.

As a relevant aside, creating separate and independent trust shares for retirement accounts trusts — now and prior to SECURE — requires that the retirement account beneficiary designation itself refer to separate trusts; e.g., 1/3 of my IRA at my death is payable to the Jane Doe Trust; 1/3 to the Susan Doe Trust; and 1/3 to the Sam Doe Trust, etc. My point here is that it is not easy under my proposed SECURE trust planning simply to fall inadvertently into an independent and separate share regime for this kind of retirement trust planning (see, e.g., IRS Private Letter Ruling 200317041). But, nonetheless, one optimally needs to understand these concepts in order to avoid a separate trust share situation for this SECURE trust design.

(3) In broad terms this SECURE retirement trust will be named as the retirement account beneficiary; and treated as a pass-through “conduit” trust. This means, again generally, that any periodic retirement account withdrawal the trustee obtains from a retirement account must — within that same taxable year — be sprinkled on out from the trust to and among one or more of the trust beneficiaries;

(4) One important point ideally is that this trust should not be used to accumulate withdrawals from non-Roth retirement accounts. Otherwise, a trust’s withdrawal from a non-Roth retirement account, if the trust thereafter holds and accumulates that withdrawal within the trust itself without distribution to a trust beneficiary, will cause the trust to be liable for income tax on that withdrawn amount at the trust’s own substantially higher, compressed income tax rates; than if taxed to a trust beneficiary at his or her lower marginal income tax rates.

As to the above income tax, generally a trust’s receipt of income is not taxable to the trust itself in situations where (under the tax law) that trust income is shifted out to a trust beneficiary by a distribution of that trust income as a trust distribution out to a recipient beneficiary. For 2021, a trust that pays its own income tax (when the trust itself holds undistributed taxable income) hits the top 37% marginal income tax rate beginning at $13,050 of trust taxable income; for a single individual, this 37% marginal rate kicks in when that individual’s taxable income is more than $523,600.

(5) But, contrary to the preceding point, note the following Roth account exception is important for this SECURE trust design: As stated above, the trust is a “conduit” trust for non-Roth tax-deferred retirement accounts. However, the trust also includes an express exception clause that allows the trustee to accumulate (thus disregard the conduit mandate) for any Roth account distributions the trustee receives. The trustee can accumulate and invest these Roth distributions for later distribution to the trust beneficiaries, well outside the 10-year SECURE distribution period;

(6) Back to broader comments. This SECURE trust design must still meet the requirement that all beneficiaries are qualified beneficiaries so as to avoid application of the five (5) year payout no-beneficiary distribution rule, rather than the 10-year rule;

(7) As to any mandated conduit distributions from the trustee to the beneficiaries, this trust design provides additional flexibility for the trustee to deal with minor-age or disabled trust beneficiaries, etc., using the following (or similar) trust provision:

“The Trustee may (without court approval) make distributions of any portion of a distribution required or permitted to be made to any person under this trust agreement in any of the following ways:  (i) to the person directly; (ii) by distribution in further trust in the manner provided under section 20.1; (iii) to the guardian of the person or the person’s property; (iv) as to such distribution by selecting and designating an individual or financial institution to serve as Custodian for such minor beneficiary under the Uniform Transfers/Gifts to Minors Act of any state; or (v) by reimbursing the individual who is actually taking care of such person (even though the individual is not the legal guardian) for expenditures made by the individual for the benefit of such person. Written receipts from the persons receiving such distributions (other than if held in continuing trust under section 20.1) shall fully and completely discharge the Trustee from any further responsibility for such expenditures. The Trustee shall not exercise any power under this section 17.7 in a manner that would cause any trust holding S corporation stock not to qualify as a permitted shareholder of that stock for federal income tax purposes.”; and

(8) Finally, under the SECURE Act’s 10-year distribution mandate, the trustee has the option to make no withdrawals from the retirement accounts until late in the 10th-year so as to let those accounts continue to be invested income-tax deferred within the retirement accounts until later withdrawn. In essence, this substantively allows for an accumulation of tax-deferred value continuing within the retirement accounts during the 10-year period, although this SECURE trust is ostensibly a conduit trust during that same 10-year period.

A Third 2021 Heckerling Estate Planning Take-Away: “Conduit Trusts”

This is my third 2021 Heckerling Institute take-away. It centers on Natalie Choate’s fine (as usual) presentation about the SECURE Act and its effect on 10-year conduit trust planning as part of one’s estate planning. A conduit trust is a “see-through” trust that receives a deceased participant’s periodic qualified retirement account distributions (such as from an IRA), with the conduit trust thereafter passing along that retirement account withdrawal from the trust to the trust beneficiaries.

The particular narrow focus of this blog post is how the retirement account distribution from the trust is thereafter taxed for income tax purposes to the recipient trust beneficiaries. This gets into the income tax DNI rules (distributable net income) and a goal of sprinkling these trust distributions to and among the trust beneficiaries so as to take advantage of their respective (in many cases lower) own personal income tax rates, etc.

In short, prior to the SECURE Act most conduit trust provisions were designed to include separate trust shares for each named beneficiary. However, in my view, the new SECURE Act 10-year limitation now points optimally to avoiding this separate trust result. In its place is a more desirable single conduit pot-trust from which — from the one trust — the periodic retirement account distributions can be sprinkled, as necessary, by the Trustee among a class of trust beneficiaries, such as a decedent participant’s children. This sprinkle element gets back to the above point about the potentially lower individual tax rates among the beneficiaries.

This blog post addresses how one might best be able to sprinkle out these periodic distributions so as to take advantage of the recipient beneficiaries’ lower income tax rates. This post also assumes the reader has some background experience with conduit trusts.

Specifically, a conduit trust now under the SECURE Act ideally needs to allow the Trustee to sprinkle the trust’s retirement account withdrawal to and among any one or more of the trust beneficiaries with each beneficiary’s share of DNI based on the distribution the beneficiary actually receives; not otherwise based on proportionate separate trust shares.

For example, assume there are five children named as the class of the conduit trust trust beneficiaries. Two children currently need distributions during 2021 to help with living expenses while at college. The younger three children do not yet need distributions. Assume in 2021 the Trustee withdraws $200,000 from the retirement account and, thereafter (as a conduit), distributes $75,000 from the conduit trust to Child One and $125,000 to Child Two.

The question arises as to how the $200,000 total DNI is allocated for 2021 for each of these two recipient children. The DNI answer is not simply that a trust beneficiary is allocated a portion of the trust DNI simply based on how much the beneficiary receives. Rather, the DNI allocation method must be a purposeful goal of the conduit trust design. In this instance, purposely avoiding separate trust treatment.

Keep in mind a conduit trust also must pass-along all withdrawn amounts from the qualified retirement accounts — during the same taxable year — on to the trust beneficiaries. In the above example, to Child One and Child Two who presently need the trust distributions. These retirement account distributions for a conduit trust also cannot accumulate in the trust itself. But keep in mind any continuing income-tax-free growth and accumulation continues to the extent the retirement account itself remains in place with no withdrawal by the Trustee (under the SECURE Act 10-year payout rule).

Back to the DNI element for a conduit trust. The ideal DNI treatment is for Child One in the above example to be treated as receiving (and taxed at her own income tax rate) $75,000 of the DNI, with Child Two receiving and taxed on $125,000 of the DNI. This DNI allocation goal is logical; but must be the result of the purposeful design of the conduit trust. Keep in mind DNI effectively shifts the income tax obligation to the recipient trust befeficiarues at their lower marginal income tax rates. The trust, in this example, does not pay any income tax on the $200,000 DNI at its otherwise higher, compressed income tax rates.

Without the above purposeful DNI design and result, there is a risk the above two children who actually received the $75,000 and $125,000 trust distributions are otherwise treated as having received and taxed each only on $40,000 DNI. This is based on 2/5 of the $200,000 trust income [as to two beneficiaries compared to the total five beneficiaries].

This would likely be a costly, inequitable result, if Child One is taxable for income tax purposes only on $40,000 of her $75,000 distribution; Child Two taxable only on $40,000 of her $125,000. Here is the costly result: the conduit trust itself would be taxable — at its higher compressed income tax rates — on the $120,000 DNI that is not deemed to have been distributed out to anyone in this example. The trustee also may likely have to withdraw additional taxable retirement account funds in order to pay this trust income tax liability. A circular challenge.

For my own benefit, and hopefully for the benefit of readers, I ask you to review my conduit trust provision below that, if included in a conduit trust (along with other necessary conduit trust provisions), may help avoid the above inequitable DNI result. Let me also just say that in this new SECURE Act environment this DNI question is a very important, new planning issue that we practitioners must now grapple with and address.

Below is the sample DNI trust provision:

” 7.11 There is no requirement under the preceding distribution provisions of this Article XXIV that the Trustee must make equal distributions to each member of the class of beneficiaries named in the preceding section 7.10.  As to any periodic conduit trust distribution to any one or more of the class of beneficiaries under this Article XXIV (whether equal, unequal, or in no amount as to any one or more of such beneficiaries), my intent is that each such beneficiary’s respective receipt of a distribution, if any, be treated as distributable net income (“DNI”) to that particular recipient beneficiary proportionate to the distribution amount he or she actually receives with the result that only the recipient beneficiaries as to periodic distributions hereunder are treated as receiving a proportionate share of DNI based on his or her actual pro-rata receipt of the total distributions.”