What Is an A-B Trust?
An A-B trust is a joint trust created by a married couple for the purpose of minimizing estate taxes. Upon the death of the first spouse, an A-B trust divides into two. It is formed with each spouse placing assets in the trust and naming as the final beneficiary any suitable person except the other spouse.
The trust gets its name from the fact that it splits into two upon the first spouse's death—where trust A is the survivor's trust and trust B is the decedent's trust.
An A-B trust minimizes estate taxes by splitting the estate into a survivor portion and a bypass portion.
The surviving spouse has limited control over the decedent's trust but the terms of the decedent's trust can be set to allow the surviving spouse to access the property and even draw income.
A-B trusts are not widely used as the estate tax exemption is sufficient for most estates.
Understanding an A-B Trust
After the death of an individual, their estate is taxed heavily before their beneficiaries receive it. For example, consider a married couple that has an estate worth $3 million by the time one of the spouses dies. The surviving spouse is left with $3 million, which is not taxed due to the unlimited marital deduction for assets flowing from a deceased spouse to a surviving spouse. However, if the other spouse dies and their estate tax exemption is $1 million, the taxable portion of the estate will be $2 million. This means that $2 million will be taxed at 40% and the remaining amount will be transferred to the beneficiaries.
To circumvent the estate from being subject to such steep taxes, many married couples set up a trust under their last will and testaments called an A-B trust. In the example above, if the couple instead had an A-B trust, the death of the first spouse would not trigger any estate taxes as a result of the lifetime exclusion. After death, the sum of money equal to the estate tax exemption in the year that they die is put in an irrevocable trust called the bypass trust, or B trust. This trust is also known as the decedent’s trust. The remaining amount, $2 million, will be transferred to a survivor’s trust, or A trust, which the surviving spouse will have complete control over. The estate tax on the A trust is deferred until after the death of the surviving spouse.
Advantages of an A-B Trust
The A trust contains the surviving spouse’s property interests, but they have limited control over the assets in the deceased spouse's trust. However, this limited control over the B trust will still enable the surviving spouse to live in the couple's house and draw income from the trust, provided these terms are stipulated in the trust.
While the surviving spouse can access the bypass trust, if necessary, the assets in this trust will bypass their taxable estate after they die. After the surviving spouse dies, only the assets in the A trust are subject to estate taxes. If the estate tax exemption for this spouse is also $1 million and the value of assets in the survivor’s trust is valued at $2 million, only $1 million will be subject to estate tax.
The federal tax exemption is transferrable between married couples through a designation referred to as the portability of the estate tax exemption. If one spouse dies, the unused portion of their estate tax exemption can be transferred and added to the estate tax exemption of the surviving spouse. Upon the death of the surviving spouse, the property in the decedent's trust passes tax-free to the beneficiaries named in this trust.
This is because the B trust uses up the estate tax exemption of the spouse that died first, hence, any funds left in the decedent’s trust will be passed tax-free. As the decedent’s trust is not considered part of the surviving spouse's estate for purposes of the estate tax, double-taxation is avoided.
Net Worth and A-B Trusts
If the deceased spouse’s estate falls under the amount of their tax exemption, then it may not be necessary to establish a survivor’s trust. The unused portion of the late spouse’s federal tax exemption can be transferred to the surviving spouse’s tax exemption by filling out IRS Form 706.
While A-B trusts are a great way to minimize estate taxes, they are not used much today. This is because each individual has a combined lifetime federal gift tax and estate tax exemption of $11,580,000 as of 2020.1 In 2021, this amount increases to $11,700,000.2 So only people with estates valued over $11.7 million will opt for an A-B trust in 2021. With the portability provision, a surviving spouse can include the tax exemption of their late spouse, allowing up to $23.16 million as of 2020, and $23.4 million as of 2021, which can be transferred tax-free to beneficiaries.