What is an ILIT?

An ILIT is a trust primarily set up to hold one or more life insurance policies. The main purpose of an ILIT is to avoid federal estate tax. If the trust is drafted and funded properly, your loved ones should receive all of your life insurance proceeds, undiminished by estate tax.

How an ILIT works

Because an ILIT is an irrevocable trust, it is considered a separate entity. If your life insurance policy is held by the ILIT, you don't own the policy--the trust does. You name the ILIT as the beneficiary of your life insurance policy. (Your family will ultimately receive the proceeds because they will be the named beneficiaries of the ILIT.) This way, there is no danger that the proceeds will end up in your estate. This could happen, for example, if the named beneficiary of your policy was an individual who dies, and then you die before you have a chance to name another beneficiary.
Because you don't own the policy and your estate will not be the beneficiary of the proceeds, your life insurance will escape estate taxation

Funding an ILIT

An ILIT can be funded in one of two ways:

  1. Transfer an existing policy--You can transfer your existing policy to the trust, but be forewarned that under federal tax rules, you'll have to wait three years for the ILIT to be effective. This means that if you die within three years of the transfer, the proceeds will be subject to estate tax. Your age and health should be considered when deciding whether to take this risk.
  2. Buy a new policy--To avoid the three-year rule explained above, you can have the trustee, on behalf of the trust, buy a new policy on your life. You can't make this purchase yourself; you must transfer money to the trust and let the trustee pay the initial premium. Then, as future annual premiums come due, you continue to make transfers to the trust, and the trustee continues to make the payments to the insurance company to keep the policy in force.

Gift tax consequences

Because an ILIT is irrevocable, any cash transfers you make to the trust are considered taxable gifts. However, if the trust is created and administered appropriately, transfers of $13,000 (2009 figure) or less per trust beneficiary will be free from federal gift tax under the annual gift tax exclusion.

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