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Using Grantor Retained Annuity Trusts (GRATs) in Estate Planning

November 14, 2023 - By: Richard P. Breed, III

The proper management and transfer of wealth are central concerns in estate planning. With a myriad of instruments at one’s disposal, it is critical to choose the right tools to achieve specific financial objectives. Among the most versatile and effective instruments is the Grantor Retained Annuity Trust (GRAT), especially useful for high net worth individuals aiming to transfer significant assets to beneficiaries while minimizing estate and gift taxes. This article will briefly highlight the mechanics, benefits, and considerations using GRATs in estate planning.

What is a GRAT?

A Grantor Retained Annuity Trust is an irrevocable trust into which the grantor places assets and retains the right to receive annuity payments for a specified term. At the end of the term, the remaining assets in the GRAT pass to the beneficiaries, typically children or grandchildren, either outright or in further trust, with any appreciation in the value of the contributed assets passing gift-tax-free. The core idea is to “freeze” the value of the estate for tax purposes, while transferring any appreciation above a set rate (often referred to as the “hurdle rate”) tax-free to the beneficiaries.

How GRATs Work

In simple terms, here’s how a GRAT works. Say you place property worth $1 million into a 10-year-term GRAT with an annual payout rate determined by current applicable federal rate (AFR) published monthly by the IRS. The current rate for November 2023 is 5.6% published under Section 7520 of the Internal Revenue Code. You receive scheduled annuity payouts during those ten years; if any appreciation exceeds that Section 7520 rate (the “hurdle rate,” the extra growth passes to your beneficiaries free of gift tax at the end of the GRAT term.

This mechanism makes GRAT especially useful for transferring assets likely to appreciate because they pass the appreciation from one generation to another without triggering substantial gift taxes or using up valuable lifetime exemption amounts. So effectively, after the final annuity payment has been received by the grantor, any remaining assets belong to designated beneficiaries.

Choosing assets for your GRAT is an important decision. You need to consider both intrinsic value and expected appreciation over the term. A smart strategy involves using assets with low valuation relative to their expected value in the future. That way the growth occurs outside of your taxable estate, minimizing its exposure to estate tax.

Typical GRAT Timeline
  1. Creation of the Trust: The grantor establishes an irrevocable trust and funds it with assets, commonly appreciating or income-generating assets like marketable securities, private equity or real estate.
  2. Annuity Payments: The grantor retains the right to receive annual annuity payments from the trust for a predetermined number of years. The annuity amount is based on a percentage of the initial contribution.
  3. “Zeroed-Out” GRAT: Often, the annuity is structured so that the present value of the payments equals the value of the contributed assets, resulting in a “zeroed-out” GRAT. This minimizes the gift tax implications of transferring the assets.
  4. Expiration: At the end of the GRAT term, any assets remaining in the GRAT are distributed to, or held for the benefit of, the beneficiaries. If the assets have appreciated above the Section 7520 rate, that excess appreciation is transferred tax-free.

Benefits of Using GRATs
  • Tax Efficiency: The foremost advantage of a GRAT is its tax efficiency. By locking in the current value of the estate and transferring the appreciation to beneficiaries, GRATs offer a robust method to reduce estate tax liability.
  • Flexibility: GRATs are flexible instruments that can be tailored to fit specific needs. The term of the trust, the assets used, and the annuity rate can all be customized.
  • Test-Drive Feature: If a GRAT fails to outperform the IRS Section 7520 rate, no harm is done; the assets merely return to the grantor’s estate. This feature allows for trial and error in wealth transfer planning without adverse consequences.
Potential Drawbacks of a GRAT
  • Mortality Risk: One drawback is that the grantor must outlive the selected term of the trust for the GRAT to be effective. If the grantor dies before the term ends, the trust assets are included in the grantor’s estate, negating the advantages of the GRAT. Therefore, your GRAT’s term needs to be long enough to let your assets grow but short enough so you’ll likely live to see its end.
  • Volatile Assets: The success of a GRAT can depend on the performance of the assets placed in the trust. If the assets do not appreciate as expected, the benefits of the GRAT may be reduced or nullified.
  • Regulatory Changes: Tax laws are subject to change, and there’s always the risk that future legislation could impact the effectiveness of GRATs.
The use of a Grantor Retained Annuity Trust can be a powerful element in a comprehensive estate plan, offering a low-risk, tax-efficient vehicle for transferring wealth to the next generation. It is particularly well suited for those with significant estates consisting of appreciating or income-producing assets.

However, like all estate planning tools, GRATs come with their own set of limitations and risks, such as mortality risk and asset volatility. Therefore, it’s crucial to consult with an experienced estate planning attorney and financial advisors to determine if a GRAT is appropriate for your specific situation. With the right planning and execution, a GRAT can serve as an indispensable tool in your estate planning toolkit.

Richard P. Breed, III is a partner at Tarlow Breed Hart & Rodgers, P.C. in Boston, Mass. Please connect with Rick at