Grantor Retained Annuity Trusts for Estate Planning

Grandparents and 2 grandkids walking on the beach, representing Grantor Retained Annuity Trust (GRA

What comes to mind when you hear the term “estate planning?”

For some people, this topic can be complicated and overwhelming. However, once you understand what it means, you will better understand the solutions.

This article defines what estate planning is and gives you an introduction to one estate planning technique: Grantor Retained Annuity Trusts (GRATs).

Estate Planning 101

Estate planning exists to help mitigate the amount of tax paid upon an individual’s death and maximize the assets they are able to pass onto heirs. Citing its most basic definition, estate tax is a tax on your right to transfer property at death.

The tax was established in 1916 as a backstop to the income tax rules. Prior to the estate tax, any asset that had appreciated in value and not sold could be passed onto heirs tax free.

The Federal Reserve Board cites, as recent as 2009, these unrealized capital gains accounted for almost 55% of the largest taxable estates, representing close to $15 billion in annual tax revenue.

That amount isn’t going to solve our $20 trillion National Debt anytime soon; however, it is meaningful as it correlates to spending for U.S. federal agencies, including the Food and Drug Administration, Centers for Disease Control, and Environmental Protection Agency, to name just a few.

The estate tax originated more than 100 years ago to ensure the wealthy paid tax on large transfers to their heirs and that hasn’t changed.

Federal Estate Tax Exemption and Tax Bracket charts

(Figures for both tables can be found at

The IRS has established a lifetime exemption amount for all individuals that in 2019 excludes the first $11.4 million of assets from estate taxes. This number is up significantly from the 2017 exemption of $5.49 million as a result of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA).

Additional Measures to Transfer Wealth

While the TCJA was a boon for individuals and families concerned about estate taxes and how to transfer wealth to the next generation, there are additional techniques and methods above and beyond the traditional estate tax exemption for effective generational wealth transfer.

Even though the top estate tax bracket is 40%, the tax is based on the assets in excess of the exemption amount. The average effective tax rate of estates’ owing tax in 2013 was only 16%.

In 2011, the IRS passed an exemption, referred to as the portability election, which allows married couples to share exemptions. This means a married couple’s taxable estate would have to be in excess of $22.8 million before being subject to estate taxes.

While the calculation of a gross estate value includes items like securities, real estate and personal property, it is reduced by outstanding debts, charitable gifts and, of course, the lifetime exemption. This means that very few estates qualify to pay estate taxes. In fact, according to the Joint Committee on Taxation, only 0.2% of the American population (or two in every 1,000 people) owed Federal Estate Tax in 2016.

You May Be Affected by a State Estate Tax

While a relatively small number of taxpayers are subject to the Federal Estate tax, many more are affected by estate taxes imposed by the state. Every state decides whether to impose an estate tax and if so, sets its own exemption limits. Some states, including Massachusetts and Oregon, have exemptions as low as $1 million.

Individuals whose assets exceed the exemption amounts have several strategies to employ during their lifetime to transfer wealth and reduce their taxable estate and tax liability.

Of the more commonly used strategies to remove assets from an individual’s taxable estate without electing an estate tax exemption is a Grantor Retained Annuity Trust.

What is a Grantor Retained Annuity Trust?

The GRAT is an irrevocable trust setup for a donor’s specified beneficiaries. The donor retains the right to an annuity payment during the GRAT’s term. The required annuity payment is based on an IRS-mandated Section 7520 interest rate, which is 2.8% as of May 2019. GRAT terms can vary, but they are commonly found in two-, five- or 10-year increments.

The goal of the GRAT is to generate capital appreciation in excess of the annuity payment, as any growth above that amount at the end of the GRAT term is passed estate tax free to the beneficiaries while the originally contributed principal is distributed back to the grantor.

How GRAT Asset Transfers Work

GRATs Have Unique Considerations

Illiquidity. The first is the illiquidity to the grantor during the term of the GRAT. While the grantor is receiving annuity payments based on the 7520 rate, the principal contributed to a GRAT is not accessible to the grantor until the end of the term. This is less of a concern for individuals with a taxable estate large enough to consider this wealth transfer strategy, but it may be a reason to appropriately size the dollar amount of assets contributed to a GRAT.

Asset growth. A second consideration is the potential that the assets in a GRAT do not grow sufficiently to outpace the 7520 rate. The current rate is low by historical standards, but in a market environment that has been extremely favorable to equity investors for almost a decade, a GRAT created today could encounter headwinds during its term.

In that scenario, the downside to a GRAT is fairly minimal since the contributed assets simply revert to the grantor’s estate because there is no excess wealth to transfer. The only cost to the grantor is the legal fees required to establish the GRAT.

Longevity. Another consideration when deciding whether to utilize a GRAT is longevity. The grantor must survive to the end of the GRAT term in order to have the capital appreciation of the assets pass estate tax free to the beneficiaries. If the grantor doesn’t outlive the GRAT term, all GRAT assets are included in the calculation of the grantor’s gross estate, including any appreciation above the 7520 rate. 

With thoughtful construction and asset placement, GRATs can be a very effective estate planning tool. A short-term GRAT may be more appropriate for older grantors to ensure they survive the term, while a long-term GRAT would provide more opportunity for capital appreciation and larger wealth transfers to the next generation.

What Should You Include in a GRAT?

Determining which assets to include in a GRAT can also maximize asset transfer.

In the current market environment where the S&P 500 is up over 250% from its low in 2009, including assets with more attractive valuations such as emerging market equities or energy infrastructure master limited partnerships (MLPs) can provide more long-term upside for the GRAT, depending on the term.


Would you like to discuss estate taxes, GRATs, or another estate planning topic? We can help you create an estate plan to meet your lifestyle and financial goals. Contact us directly at 770-368-9919, or email Cliff,; Kevin,; or Kathy,

Cliff is the founder and president of C.W. O'Conner Wealth Advisors, Inc. Cliff earned a Bachelor of Business Administration degree in Accounting from Georgia State University.

Kevin O'Conner is a financial planner with C.W. O'Conner Wealth Advisors, Inc. He earned a Bachelor of Business Administration degree in Business Management from Georgia College, and is a Certified Investment Management Analyst (CIMA).