In late 2012, a new estate planning strategy emerged – the so-called “Spousal Lifetime Access Trust” (or SLAT for short). The basic concept of the SLAT was relatively straightforward: it would function like a bypass trust, but be funded during life instead of at death, with the intention of using it to take advantage of the then-current $5.12M estate tax exemption before it dropped back to $1M as was scheduled for 2013.
Ultimately, the estate tax fiscal cliff didn’t happen, but the SLAT remains valid in 2013 and beyond for a new purpose: planning around state estate taxes, and the mismatch between the numerous states that have only a $1M state estate tax exemption and no gift tax, while the Federal gift and estate tax exemptions are at $5.25M. Given this “decoupling” of the state estate tax from its Federal gift tax – and the lack of any state gift tax backstop – couples have a unique opportunity to manage or avoid state estate taxes by creating “supercharged bypass trusts” in the form of SLATs funded during life.
The caveat to the strategy is the “reciprocal trust” doctrine, which can cause SLATs to become “uncrossed” and taxable in the original donor’s estate. Fortunately, reciprocal trust treatment can be avoided. Unfortunately, though, the rules to avoid reciprocal trust treatment are based on the facts and circumstances of the situation, and consequently a focus for the IRS and estate planning attorneys in the coming years may be figuring out how best to avoid the reciprocal trust doctrine without actually ruining the client’s financial and estate planning goals.
Nonetheless, though, the reality remains that the SLAT may be increasingly popular in the coming years, at least until states implement a gift tax, recouple to the Federal gift and estate tax system, or just repeal their state estate taxes entirely.