Irrevocable Trust: What It Is, How It Works, Uses

Irrevocable trusts have many benefits and limitations. Learn more about whether an irrevocable trust works for you.
Tiffany Lam-Balfour
By Tiffany Lam-Balfour 
Updated
Edited by Claire Tsosie

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What is an irrevocable trust?

An irrevocable trust is a trust the creator (the "grantor") cannot change or revoke. Creators give up control of the assets they put into irrevocable trusts. For this reason, an irrevocable trust can reduce estate taxes. It can also help avoid the probate process upon death.

Though there are exceptions, there’s no way to change an irrevocable trust once the assets are in the trust. Either all beneficiaries of the trust must agree to the change, or a court must order a change

American College of Trust and Estate Counsel. Can I Change My Irrevocable Trust?. Accessed Jul 11, 2023.
.

Irrevocable trusts vs. revocable trusts

The main difference between irrevocable trusts and revocable or living trusts is who has control of the assets in the trust. With an irrevocable trust, the grantor forfeits control of the assets once they go into the trust; with a revocable trust, the grantor has control over the trust assets until death. Both allow people to make arrangements ahead of time in case of incapacity and generally keep their financial affairs private.

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How irrevocable trusts work

There are many kinds of irrevocable trusts. Below are some examples. An estate planning attorney can help you determine what works best for your situation and help you meet your estate planning goals.

  • Grantor-retained annuity trusts (GRATs) and qualified personal residence trusts, or QPRTs. A GRAT is an irrevocable trust that allows the grantor to put certain assets in a temporary trust and freeze its value, removing additional appreciation from the grantor’s estate and giving it to heirs with minimal estate or gift tax liability. During the term of the GRAT, the trust pays an annuity to the grantor, so the assets in the GRAT are considered returned to the grantor

    Cornell Law School Legal Information Institute. Grantor-retained annuity trust. Accessed Jul 11, 2023.
    .

  • Generation-skipping trusts and dynasty trusts. These can shelter children or even multiple generations of heirs from estate tax. In a generation-skipping trust, for example, you transfer money to grandchildren or other people who are at least 37.5 years younger than you

    IRS.gov. Instructions for Form 706-GS(T). Accessed Jul 11, 2023.
    .

  • Spendthrift trusts. When beneficiaries can’t make good financial decisions for themselves, the trustee of a spendthrift trust decides when and how the beneficiary is allowed to use the money.

  • Special needs trusts. Also known as supplemental needs trusts, special needs trusts allow a person with functional needs to get financial support without negatively affecting any means-tested government benefits they’re receiving, such as Medicaid or Supplemental Security Income (SSI)

    American College of Trust and Estate Counsel. Special Needs Trusts. Accessed Jul 11, 2023.
    .

  • Charitable remainder trusts (CRTs), charitable lead trusts (CLTs) and pooled income trusts. Charitable trusts essentially leave any leftover trust assets to a charity of the grantor's choice.

How to set up an irrevocable trust

  1. The grantor establishes the trust.

  2. The grantor designates a third party to act as trustee and names beneficiaries.

  3. The grantor transfers assets into the trust. The grantor surrenders ownership rights and cedes control to the trustee. These assets are no longer part of the grantor’s taxable estate.

Benefits of an irrevocable trust

1. Potential estate tax savings

If your estate is likely subject to estate tax, figuring out ways to minimize or avoid the hefty tax burden can be enticing. For most people, this isn't a concern. The federal estate tax ranges from rates of 18% to 40% and generally only applies to assets over $12.92 million in 2023 or $13.61 million in 2024. However, some states levy their own estate taxes and tax small estates. Also, the federal estate tax exemption could change or become lower over time, which is something to consider when planning for the future.

2. Potential protection from creditors

For those in occupations prone to lawsuits — such as attorneys, doctors and real estate developers — keeping personal assets out of the reach of creditors can help protect you and your heirs

National Council on Aging. Living Trust vs. Will: Key Differences. Accessed Jul 11, 2023.
. Irrevocable asset protection trusts may do exactly this.

There are two varieties: domestic and foreign or offshore. Not all states allow domestic asset protection trusts, and foreign ones can be costly to administer. Furthermore, if a court determines that your asset protection trust was created with the intent to defraud creditors, you could face significant legal consequences and be forced to undo your asset transfer

American College of Trust and Estate Counsel. An Update on Asset Protection Cases Where Lawyers Overstepped Their Boundaries. Accessed Jul 11, 2023.
.

» Need some help? Check out our roundup of the best wealth advisors

3. Qualification for certain government programs

To qualify for certain government programs, such as Medicaid, applicants often need to demonstrate that they have limited assets and income.

An asset protection trust removes assets from one’s estate, which can in turn make a person eligible for certain government programs. For example, Medicare generally does not cover long-term care costs, but Medicaid, the government’s health care program for lower-income Americans, does

Medicaid.gov. Medicaid Eligibility. Accessed Jul 11, 2023.
.

Note that there are many rules surrounding the use of asset protection trusts to reduce assets. Medicaid has a "look-back" period of up to five years to check that no assets were given away during that time. Forming an asset-protection trust within that time frame may violate the look-back rule and induce a period of ineligibility for the applicant. An estate planning attorney can help shed more light on whether a Medicaid asset protection trust is feasible for you.

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Trust & Will - Will

Price (one-time)

$89 for Basic will plan, $99 for Comprehensive will plan, $249 for Estate Plan Bundle.

Price (one-time)

One-time fee of $159 per individual or $259 for couples.

Price (annual)

None

Price (annual)

$19 annual membership fee.

Access to attorney support

Yes

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Disadvantages of irrevocable trusts

1. Loss of control over assets

No matter what reasons are prompting you to set up an irrevocable trust, you’ll need to get comfortable giving up ownership rights and control of your assets. It isn’t always easy to let go of assets you’ve worked hard to earn and accumulate over your lifetime.

2. Reliance on a trustee

It may be hard to find someone you’re aligned with and feel confident will make decisions in the best interest of the trust. Grantors can usually appoint a trust protector as an additional set of eyes to watch over the management of the trust. Trust protectors pay attention to regulations and laws to monitor if any changes will have an adverse impact on the trust. They can act as a mediator if beneficiaries disagree and can also replace the trustee if necessary. The grantor is able to prescribe what powers the trust protector has when drafting the trust document.

3. No beneficiary changes

Once trust assets are transferred into an irrevocable trust, the grantor cannot alter the terms of the trust. This means that the grantor cannot remove or change the beneficiaries named in the trust or regain control of any trust assets if fortunes change and those assets are needed down the road.

4. Complexity

Trust strategies are complex and can be hard to understand and administer. Hiring an expert carries a cost as well, though it could be a drop in the bucket compared to the long-term benefits of the trust. But because your decisions are irrevocable, making sure you’re aware of all the details and corresponding implications is very important so that you don’t end up inadvertently doing something you wouldn’t have wanted to do.

» Crafting a trust or will yourself? Here are our top picks for online will makers

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