A blog post

Joe Kennedy and Generation-Skipping Trusts

Posted on the 15 September, 2012 at 9:42 pm Written by in Taxes

We recently had an issue with the generation-skipping tax (GST). What is it? First of all think gift or estate tax. Pull your thoughts away from income taxes. Gift or estate tax is assessed when you either (a) gift property or (b) die with property. One would think would be sufficient, but there was a loophole to the gift and estate tax that Congress wanted to fix. That fix was the generation-skipping tax.

Let’s explain the loophole through a story. Joseph P. Kennedy (1888-1969) was a bank president by age 25. He made his chops through insider trading before the government ever thought of a Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). He had the foresight to unload his stocks before 1929, and then added to his fortune by shorting stocks during the Great Depression. Frankly, this guy was THE Gordon Gekko of his time. Today he would be in jail with Bernie Madoff. In an example of the irony that is Washington D.C., he became the first chairman of the SEC.

Let’s continue. By the mid-thirties his fortune was closing in on $200 million. Joe had a problem: he wanted to pass the money on to his descendants, but the estate taxes were usurious. For much of his wealth years, estate taxes were 70% or more. Granted, there was an exclusion amount, but Joe had long since accumulated substantially more than any exclusion amount. What was Joe to do?

Here is what Joe did: he had multiple generations skip the estate tax entirely. How?

Joe did this by using trusts. In 1926 Joe set up his first trust for Rose and the children. He created another in 1936, and then another in 1949. This last trust was the one through which Joe would transfer to his 28 grandchildren. We have talked about dynasty trusts in the past, and Joe was apparently a believer. A dynasty trust will run as long as state law will allow (there is a legal doctrine called the “rule against perpetuities”). A dynasty trust can go to the grandkids, then the great-grandkids, then the great-great…. Well, you get the idea.

John F. Kennedy (JFK) was Joe’s son and a trust beneficiary. He was also the 35th President of the United States. JFK’s trust provided him income for life, as well as the right to withdraw up to 5% of the trust principal annually. It must have been a fairly sizeable income, as JFK donated his presidential salary to charity. Upon JF’s death, his interest in Joe’s trust was not taxable to his estate (which is pretty much the point of a skip trust). Joe’s trust then skipped to JFK’s children, John F. Kennedy Jr and Caroline Kennedy. By the way, JFK had never updated his will, and upon his death he left no provision for his children. It is possible that – had he lived – JFK would have settled his own skip trust, and then his children would have had TWO generations of skip trusts providing them income.

Eventually this technique came to Congress’ attention, and in 1976 they passed their first attempt at the GST. The law was very poorly drafted, and Congress kept postponing the law until they ultimately repealed it – retroactively – in 1986. In its place Congress substituted a new-and-improved GST.

What is it about the GST? First, it is not the easiest reading this side of Joyce’s Ulysses. Second, much of estate planning is done using trusts. This introduces trust techniques such as fractionalization (i.e., assets going to multiple individuals), control (i.e., the beneficiary can request but the trustee can reject), and timing (i.e., the grandchildren have to wait until the children are deceased).  Third, unlike the gift or estate tax, the GST may not be payable at the time of gift or death. The GST can spring up years later when the trust distributes or terminates. Try having that conversation with a client….

Let’s go through some examples.

(1)  You gift your grandchild $100,000 as a down-payment on a house.

1. OK, that seems pretty simple. You have a skip.

Let’s step through the taxation of this transaction:

i. You are out the $100,000.

ii. You paid the gift tax.

iii. What happens if you pay the GST for your grandchild?

SPOILER ALERT: The recipient (not the payer) is liable for the GST.

Your payment of the GST is treated as an ADDITIONAL gift!

(2) You set up a trust for your grandchild. You settle it with $100,000.

1. On its face I would say you have a skip.

(3) Let’s modify the trust. Say that you give a life estate to each of your two children. Your three grandchildren are residual beneficiaries.

1. Is there a skip? Yep.

2. How do you value the skip?

Let’s do ourselves a favor and “skip” that question for a moment.

3. When do you value it?

i. At the time the trust is created?

ii. When the children both pass away (leaving only the grandchildren)?

iii. When the trust actually distributes to a grandchild?

 ANSWER: at the death of the second-to-die child

 (4)    Let’s press on. The grandchildren are not yet born when you fund the trust. Attorneys refer to them as “contingent” beneficiaries.

1. Is there a skip? Probably.

Probably? What kind of weasel answer is that?

The truth is that there may never be grandchildren, or the grandchildren may not live long enough to benefit under the trust. In that situation, there is no skip. Otherwise there would be a skip.

2. How do you value the skip?

I tell you what I would do: I would allocate $100,000 of my GST exemption to the trust when settled. I would file a gift tax return and prominently announce to the IRS that I am allocating $100,000 of my exemption. This makes the trust GST exempt, now and forever. It will not matter how much the trust appreciates in the future, or if, when or to whom it distributes.

3. When do you value it?

If you followed my advice, when you funded the trust.

Now before you worry about the GST, remember that one has to skip a certain amount of money to even step onto the GST field. For 2012 you would have to skip more than $5 million. If there is no change in the tax law, in 2013 that amount will drop to $1 million. Still, $1 million will keep most of us out of GST trouble.

The estate tax was Congress’ effort to slow-down the accumulation of familial wealth, and the GST was an effort to close a loophole in the estate tax. Its purpose was to ensure that accumulations of great wealth were taxed at least once every generation. Congress did not want the establishment of an inherited class, somewhat like the House of Lords in England. How many Paris Hiltons – or William Kennedy Smiths – do we as a nation want to tolerate?

The irony of GST tax law is that wealthy had little incentive to establish dynasty trusts before 1986. There were several states, including Idaho and Wisconsin, which allowed trusts to be perpetual. Many states have since followed suit, liberalizing their state statutes to allow long-lived (although maybe not perpetual) trusts in an effort to attract the high-wealth investments out there. There was a study in the mid-2000s which estimated that more than $100 billion had flowed into states allowing these long-lived trusts. It appears that Congress has created a bit of a cottage industry.