A blog post

Facebook and Tax Planning With Trusts

Posted on the 17 May, 2012 at 7:10 pm Written by in Taxes

You may know that Facebook is going public. This means an IPO, hotly anticipated and all but guaranteed to make the founders incredibly wealthy. You may have read about Eduardo Saverin, who has renounced his U.S. citizenship and intends to become a resident of Singapore. There is discussion about tax motivations for his expatriation. Could be. Singapore has more lenient tax treatment of capital gains than the U.S. To be fair, Saverin only became a U.S. citizen in 1998, so his ties may not be as strong as that of a natural-born citizen.

I intend to blog about on Saverin and his tax implications, but for today I wanted to talk about founder Mark Zuckerberg. Facebook’s prospectus lists eight “annuity trusts” set up by insiders, including Zuckerberg, Dustin Moskovitz, Sean Parker, Sheryl Sandberg, Reid Hoffman and Michelle Yee. These trusts hold approximately 22 million shares, which could be worth around $700 million at IPO.

You can afford a lot of tax planning with $700 million. The insiders have not spoken about this matter, nor should one expect them to. I have been reading tax commentary speculating that these trusts are grantor retained annuity trusts, also called GRATs. I agree. Let’s talk about it.

A GRAT is used to shift wealth from one taxpayer to another. In my experience, it has been from one generation to another.

The GRAT has to pay-out a stream of payments to its settlor (the grantor). The payment stream is called the annuity. There are two more considerations: how much to pay out and for how long. The shortest GRAT I have seen is two years. At the end of the term, the remaining money in the GRAT goes to the beneficiary.

All right, so the settlor gifts the remaining money in the GRAT. There may be gift tax, depending on the amount of money gifted. There is a version of a GRAT where “nothing” passes at the end, so the gift is zero. Why the quotation mark around “nothing?” Ah, there is where tax planners make their money.

You see, “nothing” does not actually mean nothing. In this area of the tax world, “nothing” can be something, and quite a lot of something. The “nothing” is a mathematical calculation and not an actual dollar amount. The key to the calculation is the interest rate. 

Say that I put $1 million into a GRAT. I want payments over ten years. I have to use an interest rate, because payments are being made over time. The IRS publishes minimum interest rates for this purpose. As long as I use their interest rate (or higher), there is no problem. Say that their interest rate is 5% and I am looking to zero-out the GRAT. In year one I would take out $150,000 ($1,000,000 divided by 10 years plus $1,000,000 times 5%). What if the money was invested in something that pays – or appreciates – at more than 5%? That is the key that starts the GRAT engine. Let’s say that the investment actually pays 10%. The GRAT is paying out 5%, or only ½ of its actual earnings. The trust is accumulating, isn’t it? Let it accumulate for 10 years and I can transfer a tidy sum at the end. However, for IRS purposes I am deemed to have transferred zero, zippo, nada, because the IRS allows me to assume that the investment is paying only 5%. According to IRS math, there is no money left over to accumulate. Ten years of zero is zero. There is no gift. There is no gift tax. The IRS cannot be wrong.

Let’s go back to the Facebook insiders. What interest rate do they have to use? Last time I checked it was around 1.6%. Do you think there is an accumulation possibility here with Facebook stock? Yes, I think so.

I am not making this up. I wish I could have been one of the advisors.

Actually, I wish I could have been one of the insiders.