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Will New IRS Memo End the Decanting of Irrevocable Trusts?

Posted On: April 3, 2024

By: Todd Villarrubia

Todd M. Villarrubia, an authority in wealth planning and preservation, brings over 30 years of in-depth, experience to the complex challenges of safeguarding familial and individual wealth. Based in New Orleans, Louisiana, his expertise is not only recognized in the local community but also reverberates within the legal industry.
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For years, practitioners have freely used irrevocable trust decantings as a means to make various changes to irrevocable trusts without concern of giving rise to gift tax consequences.

The term “irrevocable trust” is not quite what it seems, says a recent article from The National Law Review, “Is CCA 202352018 the Death of Irrevocable Trust Decantings?” There are several mechanisms by which irrevocable trusts can be modified. Generally, they can be modified in one or two ways, depending on the state’s laws. In some states, an irrevocable trust can be modified with the consent of the beneficiaries and the trustees. Some states also require the consent of the settlor if they are living. This is referred to as a “non-judicial modification.”

In other states, an irrevocable trust can be modified by a decanting, a process where an authorized trustee exercises their independent discretion to “pour” over the property of the trust to a new trust with different terms—hence the term decanting.

However, the IRS’ Chief Council Advice Memorandum (CCA 202352018) (the “CCA”) may be the end of irrevocable trust decantings as they have been used for years. It’s all about the taxes.

Estate planning attorneys have been concerned that using a non-judicial modification to make changes with the beneficiaries' consent, such as removing a beneficiary, shifting beneficial interests, or diluting a beneficiary’s interest, might be considered a taxable gift by the beneficiaries. The concern wasn’t present for decantings, since they are effectuated by the independent act of an authorized trustee, who doesn’t have a beneficial interest in the trust without the beneficiaries' consent - until the CCA.

The CCA Memorandum reviewed a case where, in the first year, an irrevocable inter vivos trust is established for the benefit of a Child and the Child’s descendants, and the trustee may distribute income and principal for the benefit of the child according to the trustee’s discretion. When the Child dies, the remainder will be distributed to the Child’s issue per stirpes.

In year two, when the Child has no living grandchildren or remote descendants, the trustee petitions the state court to modify the terms of the trust. The Child and Child’s issue consent to the modification. Later that year, the State Court grants the petition and issues an order modifying the trust to provide a trustee of the Trust with the power to reimburse the grantor for any income taxes. The grantor pays due to the inclusion of the Trust’s income in the grantor’s taxable income.

The Chief Counsel finds the modification of the irrevocable trust with the consent of the beneficiaries may constitute a taxable gift from the beneficiaries. However, the CCA goes on to say, “[t]he result would be the same if the modification was pursuant to a state statute that provides beneficiaries with a right to notice and a right to object to the modification and a beneficiary fails to exercise their right to object.”

This additional comment from the Chief Counsel is seen as foreshadowing the IRS’ position concerning decanting, and it may prove problematic. Most states currently authorizing trust decanting by statute require the trustee to provide the beneficiaries with notice of the decanting and provide that unless the beneficiaries consent to an earlier effective date, the decanting is only effective after a period of time elapses following the beneficiaries’ receipt of the notice.

It remains to be seen whether this comment from the Chief Counsel will foreclose all possible options for decanting. Decantings are permitted by law in various states, and many estate planning attorneys include provisions in their irrevocable trusts allowing the trustee to decant the trust under the terms of the trust, using the language of an “internal decanting provision.”

Whether the IRS will issue further guidance on the intersection of decantings and gift tax implications remains to be seen. If you are exploring the possibility of modifying an irrevocable trust, it is always best to speak with an estate planning attorney to review options and possible risks.

Reference: The National Law Review (Feb. 29, 2024) “Is CCA 202352018 the Death of Irrevocable Trust Decantings?”

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