Understanding marital trusts is crucial for couples looking to secure their financial future and provide for the surviving spouse tax-efficiently. This article is a guide to marital trusts, how they work and their advantages and disadvantages. With the potential to safeguard assets and ensure that they reach the intended beneficiaries, marital trusts can be an effective part of a comprehensive estate plan, particularly for those in a second marriage or a blended family.
A marital trust is a type of irrevocable trust and is crafted to benefit the surviving spouse. It allows for the managed distribution of assets, potentially safeguarding against financial imprudence or external influences.
Consider that while many couples are just fine with everything going to the surviving spouse directly and outright after one spouse dies, in some cases, there may be concerns related to the surviving spouse not being able to manage the money effectively. What would happen to the money if the surviving spouse is not good with money or is vulnerable to financial predators? Perhaps giving the entire estate outright to the spouse would run the risk that all of the money would be spent irresponsibly. A marital trust allows for both tax benefits and protections for the couple's estate to prevent these issues from happening.
There are three parties involved in setting up, maintaining and ultimately passing along the trust, including a grantor, who is the person who establishes the trust; the trustee, who’s the person or organization that manages the trust and its assets; and the beneficiary. That person will eventually receive the assets in the trust once the grantor dies. The surviving spouse must be the sole beneficiary of a marital trust. Once the surviving spouse dies, the assets in the trust typically pass to surviving children. A marital trust also involves the principal, which are assets initially put into the trust.
For blended families, using a marital trust is becoming more popular as a means of passing assets to a surviving spouse and protecting the inheritance of children from previous marriages. If one or both spouses in a second marriage have children from a prior marriage, both spouses typically want to ensure that their kids get an inheritance at some point in the future. While most married couples prioritize their spouse as the primary beneficiary, after the surviving spouse passes away, if the couple's estate plan gives everything directly to the surviving spouse, that arrangement would run the risk that the children from a prior marriage of the deceased spouse would be cut off from receiving an inheritance.
While couples want to assume that a surviving spouse will protect the rights of children from their spouse's previous marriage, without legal safeguards, the estate of the surviving spouse can be changed to cut out individuals named as beneficiaries after their spouse's death. Having a marital trust for the surviving spouse ensures that this change can't happen.
Additional situations in which a couple might consider using a marital trust include wanting to prevent undue influence of an outside person or party over the surviving spouse. This usually is a concern for older couples when the surviving spouse is in declining health or may have early onset of dementia, and there's a concern they may be vulnerable to being taken advantage of financially. Another motivation for a marital trust includes a spouse who has an addiction that prevents them from making sound financial choices.
In 2010, when Actor Tony Curtis died, his five children were left out of their father's inheritance in a last-minute decision shortly before his death, notes MoneyWise article, "Hollywood legend Tony Curtis cut his kids out of his will and $60 million fortune when he died. Here's how to avoid leaving behind messy inheritance disputes." While Curtis did have a will, he decided to leave the majority of his assets to his fifth wife, Jill, and intentionally disinherit his children. The change to his estate plan came only a few months before his death, which raised suspicions within the family. Some of the Curtis children opened estate disputes in the years following his death to challenge the disinheritance, causing additional pain and separation within their family. If Curtis were subject to the undue influence of his fifth wife, Jill, as some of the Curtis children claimed, then a trust could have protected them from being disinherited.
One of the most significant benefits of a marital trust is its impact on estate taxes. A marital trust effectively doubles the estate tax exemption for a married couple, ensuring that a more significant portion of their wealth can be transferred tax-free. In the context of the federal estate tax, this can result in substantial tax savings and financial security for the surviving spouse and any other designated beneficiaries.
The unlimited marital deduction is a cornerstone of marital trust planning. It allows the first spouse to pass assets to the surviving spouse without incurring estate taxes at the time of the first spouse's death. This deduction is a critical aspect of marital trusts, ensuring that the income to the surviving spouse provides the necessary financial support without an immediate tax burden.
While a marital trust offers many benefits, it's essential to consider any limitations or drawbacks, such as loss of flexibility once established.
Setting up a marital trust is a complicated form of estate planning that involves several steps, including choosing a trustee to manage the trust assets, determining the terms under which the trust assets will be managed and distributed and ensuring that the couple's property is held in trust. When couples have complex family situations, including blended families or a spouse with vulnerabilities, a marital trust provides for the financial well-being of the surviving spouse. It also ensures that assets are preserved for future generations.
By working with an experienced estate planning attorney who carefully plans and considers a family's unique financial landscape, a couple can assess whether a marital trust should be part of their comprehensive estate plan.