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.”

Rethinking the 30-Year Old Pecuniary Marital / By-Pass Trust Formula

For the past 30 years the majority of married couple Wills (or revocable trusts) have included a marital / by-pass trust with a built-in mathematical formula. The formula determines what portion of the first-to-die spouse’s estate ends up in the marital trust versus what portion in the by-pass trust.

The by-pass trust under this longstanding formula ends up typically with the first-to-die spouse’s full available estate exemption amount plus the appreciation of the first spouses’ estate assets during the estate administration (prior to funding the trusts). The martial trust ends up with the balance.

The above 30-year approach is outdated in my opinion. Why?

It will produce in many cases unnecessarily increased income tax exposure from the compressed top marginal income tax rates applicable to trusts. It also will result in loss of a second stepped-up basis for the by-pass trust assets at the surviving spouse’s death.

Below is a more modern planning option:

This newer approach uses a pecuniary formula that gives the QTIPable marital trust an amount equal to the full value of the first spouse’s estate (not including qualified retirement accounts).   Essentially under this approach this QTIPable marital trust gets the entire first-to-die spouse’s estate based on the date of death value of the assets. By contrast, the QTIPable by-pass trust gets all the appreciation of the assets during the estate administration.

Why this newer approach?

One. This is an excellent design regardless of whether a married couple ends up over or under the inflation-adjusted $10 million combined estate exemption.

Two. This modern approach gives the surviving spouse the ability to choose full estate exemption portability of the first spouse’s estate, if desired. Portability can put into place a second stepped-up basis for the first-to-die spouse’s assets, again if desired. In addition, a full or partial QTIP election is available for either or both the marital trust and by-pass trust.

Three. This QTIPable trust design for both the marital trust and by-pass trust can include certain other bells and whistles so as to make either or both QTIP trusts defective for income tax purposes as to the surviving spouse. This helps reduce or eliminate the marginal income tax rate exposure.

Bottom line:

The above modern design provides optimal future flexibility that enables the surviving spouse to choose the best course of action for both estate and income tax savings, based on a response to the tax laws and circumstances at the first spouse’s death.

By contrast, the 30-year old marital / by-pass plan locks both spouses into inflexible options prior to the death of the first spouse. I general don’t like getting boxed in in this manner. Far too restrictive.