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Irrevocable Life Insurance Trusts (ILIT)

Updated: Nov 7, 2023
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An irrevocable life insurance trust (ILIT) is a legal entity that holds and manages a life insurance policy. By transferring your life insurance policy to an ILIT, you can strategically shield the policy's death benefit from estate taxes. Additionally, an ILIT allows you to dictate specific terms for how the policy's proceeds are allocated to your beneficiaries. This tool is especially advantageous for those with substantial assets or intricate family relationships, as it offers financial control and tax efficiency.

Key Takeaways

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An irrevocable life insurance trust (ILIT) is a legal entity that holds a life insurance policy for estate planning benefits.

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An ILIT involves three parties: the grantor, the trustee and any beneficiaries.

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An ILIT is ideal for individuals with sizable estates, specific asset protection needs or particular beneficiary distribution wishes.

How an Irrevocable Life Insurance Trust Works

In an ILIT, the trust owns the life insurance policy rather than the individual. This arrangement provides a dual advantage: it keeps the death benefit out of your taxable estate, and it allows you to set specific terms for how the estate distributes money to its beneficiaries.

An ILIT operates through a well-defined process involving multiple parties.

  • The Grantor: The individual who sets up the ILIT. The grantor transfers the ownership of a life insurance policy to the trust.

  • The Trustee: Appointed by the grantor to manage the ILIT. Responsibilities include paying premiums and distributing the death benefit according to the trust's terms.

  • The Beneficiaries: Individuals or entities named in the trust document who will receive the death benefit.

When the grantor passes away, the death benefit from the life insurance policy goes directly into the ILIT, bypassing the taxable estate. The trustee then allocates these funds to the beneficiaries based on the guidelines set in the trust document.

Factors to Consider

There are several factors to consider when setting up an ILIT. These variables can significantly impact the effectiveness of the trust in achieving your financial and estate planning goals.

  • Trustee Selection: The trustee plays a pivotal role in managing the ILIT. Choose someone reliable and capable of adhering to the trust's terms.

  • Distribution Terms: Clearly outline how and when your beneficiaries will receive the allocated death benefits. This could be immediately upon your death or at specified milestones.

  • Type of Life Insurance Policy: The kind of policy you choose — term or permanent — can affect the trust's utility and flexibility.

  • The Three-Year Rule: When transferring an existing life insurance policy into the ILIT, it's helpful to understand this rule. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) may include the death benefit in your taxable estate if you pass away within three years of the transfer.

You should also be aware of the various financial costs when establishing and maintaining an ILIT, including legal fees and administrative expenses.

  • Legal Fees: Drafting the trust document is a legal process that typically requires the expertise of an estate planning attorney. Fees can vary based on complexity.

  • Administrative Costs: These are the ongoing expenses of managing the trust, such as annual accounting or trustee fees.

Revocable vs. Irrevocable Life Insurance Trust

When it comes to putting life insurance in a trust, you have two primary options: revocable and irrevocable. A revocable trust provides the advantage of flexibility. You can alter its terms, add or remove assets and even dissolve it if your circumstances or intentions change. However, this flexibility comes at the cost of fewer estate tax benefits, as the assets in a revocable trust are still considered part of your taxable estate.

Conversely, an ILIT is set in stone once established. You relinquish control over the life insurance policy, making it impossible to change the trust's terms without the consent of all beneficiaries. While this may seem restrictive, the irrevocable nature of the trust offers substantial benefits, including potential estate tax savings and enhanced asset protection. The assets in an ILIT are not part of your taxable estate, providing a clear tax advantage.

Common Uses of Irrevocable Life Insurance Trusts

Irrevocable life insurance trusts are versatile financial tools that offer more than just a vessel for life insurance policies. Here are a few common uses for an ILIT:

  • Charitable Giving: You can designate a charity as a beneficiary of the ILIT. This allows you to make significant charitable contributions upon your death, which can also offer estate tax benefits.

  • Special Needs Planning: An ILIT can be structured to provide for a special-needs beneficiary, ensuring they have financial support without jeopardizing their eligibility for government assistance programs.

  • Business Succession Planning: An ILIT can hold a life insurance policy for business owners that funds a buy-sell agreement. This ensures a smooth business ownership transition, providing liquidity when it's most needed.

  • Educational Funding: You can set up the ILIT to disburse funds specifically for educational expenses, ensuring your beneficiaries have the resources they need for higher education.

  • Spousal Support: You can design an ILIT to provide income for a surviving spouse, with the remainder going to other beneficiaries after the spouse's death.

  • Generation-Skipping Transfers: You can structure an ILIT to benefit grandchildren or later generations, effectively skipping your immediate heirs. This can be a strategic way to maximize the financial benefits across multiple generations while minimizing estate taxes.

  • Equalizing Inheritances: If you wish to leave other significant assets to specific heirs — like a family business — an ILIT can help equalize inheritances among all your beneficiaries without liquidating or dividing those assets.

  • Liquidity for Estate Settlement: An ILIT can provide immediate liquidity to cover estate taxes and other settlement costs, preventing the forced sale of other assets like real estate or family heirlooms.

  • Avoiding Probate: Since the ILIT is a non-probate asset, the proceeds can be distributed to beneficiaries without the often lengthy and costly probate process.

These uses demonstrate how you can tailor ILITs to meet many estate planning and financial goals, providing benefits that extend beyond the immediate needs of your beneficiaries.

Pros and Cons of an Irrevocable Life Insurance Trust

ILITs offer a blend of advantages and challenges. Understanding these pros and cons can guide you in determining whether an ILIT aligns with your estate planning objectives and financial situation.

Pros and Cons

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  • Estate Tax Reduction: An ILIT removes the life insurance policy from your taxable estate. This can significantly reduce the estate tax burden on your heirs, ensuring that you pass down more of your assets.

  • Asset Protection: By holding the life insurance policy, the ILIT safeguards the death benefit from creditors and legal judgments. This ensures that the funds reach your beneficiaries without being diminished by external financial risks.

  • Control Over Distribution: Unlike a standard life insurance policy, an ILIT allows you to set specific terms for distributing the death benefit. You can stipulate age-based disbursements or set conditions that beneficiaries must meet to receive funds, offering a level of control that a standalone policy cannot match.

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  • Irrevocability: After you set up the ILIT, making changes is either extremely challenging or impossible. This can be a drawback if your personal or financial circumstances change.

  • Cost: Initial legal fees for drafting the ILIT and ongoing administrative expenses can accumulate. You should consider these costs as part of your overall financial strategy.

  • Limited Access to Funds: Once the life insurance policy is in the ILIT, you can't borrow against it or change its terms. This could be a disadvantage if you later need access to the policy's cash value for emergencies or other financial needs.

How to Set up an Irrevocable Life Insurance Trust

Establishing an ILIT is a multi-step process that requires careful planning. Each step is vital to ensure that the trust functions according to your estate planning goals and provides the intended benefits to your beneficiaries. Here's a step-by-step guide to help you get started.


Consult a Legal Advisor

Before taking action, consult an estate planning attorney specializing in ILITs. They can guide you through the complexities and help tailor the trust to your specific needs.


Draft the Trust Document

This is the foundational step where you outline the terms of the trust, name the beneficiaries and appoint a trustee. The document should be comprehensive and clear to avoid any future misunderstandings.


Transfer Ownership

You'll need to formally transfer the ownership of your life insurance policy to the ILIT. This is a critical step, as it removes the policy from your taxable estate.


Notify Insurance Company

Once you finalize the trust document and transfer the policy, notify the insurance company of the change in ownership and beneficiaries. This ensures that the policy and the trust are correctly linked.


Fund the Trust

The trust needs to be funded to pay for the life insurance premiums. You can do this through gifts to the trust, which the trustee uses to pay the premiums.


Annual Crummey Letters

If you're making annual gifts to the trust to cover premiums, you must send Crummey letters to beneficiaries. These letters notify them of their right to withdraw the gifted amount within a specific time frame, a requirement for the gift to qualify for annual gift tax exclusion. Failure to send Crummey letters could result in gift tax consequences.


Regular Reviews

Periodically review the ILIT with your legal advisor to ensure it still aligns with your financial and estate planning goals, especially if there are changes in tax laws or family circumstances.

Who Should Consider an Irrevocable Life Insurance Trust

Determining whether an ILIT is right for you and your loved ones involves a nuanced evaluation of your circumstances.

An ILIT may be right for you if:

  • You Have a Sizable Estate: If your estate is large enough to be subject to federal or state estate taxes, an ILIT can offer significant tax advantages.

  • Asset Protection is a Priority: An ILIT can shield your life insurance death benefit from creditors, making it a smart choice if you're concerned about asset protection.

  • You Want Control Over Distribution: If you have specific wishes about distributing your assets after your death, an ILIT allows you to set those terms explicitly.

  • You Have Complex Family Dynamics: In blended families or situations where you want to set conditions for beneficiaries, an ILIT provides the structure to do so.

  • You Have Charitable Giving Goals: If you intend to leave a portion of your assets to charity, an ILIT can facilitate this in a tax-efficient manner.

An ILIT may not be right for you if:

  • Your Estate is Below Tax Exemption: If your total estate value is below the federal estate tax exemption limit, the tax benefits of an ILIT may be irrelevant.

  • You Value Flexibility: ILITs are irrevocable. If you anticipate needing to change the terms, a more flexible estate planning tool like a revocable trust might be better suited for you.

  • You Have Cost Concerns: The legal and administrative costs of setting up and maintaining an ILIT can be prohibitive for some.

  • You Need Access to Cash Value: If you think you'll need to borrow against the life insurance policy in the future, an ILIT will restrict that option.

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There are limited circumstances under which you can terminate ILITs. This usually involves the unanimous consent of all beneficiaries. You may also need to obtain court approval to finalize the termination. If you plan on dissolving an ILIT, consider consulting an experienced estate planning attorney to help you navigate the process and ensure you meet all legal requirements.

Frequently Asked Questions About Irrevocable Life Insurance Trusts

Understanding the different aspects of an ILIT can help you decide whether it suits your financial goals and needs. Below are commonly asked questions on ILIT to give you more information you can use when deciding.

About Melissa Wylie

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Melissa Wylie is a Content and SEO Manager at MoneyGeek. Melissa has worked in the financial content space since 2018 and has spent much of that time focused on all things small business.

Prior to joining MoneyGeek, Melissa held SEO positions at Bankrate and LendingTree. Melissa’s work has also appeared on LendingTree-owned websites ValuePenguin and MagnifyMoney.

Melissa began her career at American City Business Journals in 2015 as a reporter for the company’s women-focused publication Bizwomen. Melissa has a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism from the University of North Texas. Melissa relies on her foundation in journalism to craft content that simplifies complex financial topics to help everyone feel confident when making decisions with their money.

Melissa's other work can be read on LendingTree and Bizwomen.