Thursday, May 5, 2016

Splitting With The IRS Over Insurance

I am reading a case where the Tax Court just entered a “partial” summary judgement. This means that at least one issue has been decided but the remaining issue or issues are still being litigated.

And I think I see what the attorneys are up to.

We are talking about split-dollar life insurance. 

This had been a rather humdrum area of tax until 2002. The IRS then issued new rules which tipped the apple cart and sent planners scrambling to review – and likely revise – their clients’ split dollar arrangements (SDAs). I know because I had the misfortune of being point man on this issue at a CPA firm. There is a certain wild freedom when the IRS decides to reset an area of tax, with revisions to previous interim Notices, postponed deadlines and clients who considered you crazed.

To set-up the issue, a classic split dollar arrangement involves an employer buying a life insurance policy on an employee. The insurance is permanent – meaning cash value build-up - and the intent is for the employee to eventually walk away with the policy or for the employee’s estate to receive the death benefits. The only thing the employer wants is a return of the premiums it paid.

Find a policy where the cash value grows faster than the cumulative premiums paid and you have a tax vehicle ready to hit the highway. 

Our case involves the Morrissette family, owners of a large moving company. Grandmom (Clara Morrissette) had a living trust, to which she contributed all her company stock. She was quite concerned about the company remaining in the hands of the family. She had her attorney establish three trusts, one for each son. The sons, trusts and grandmom then entered into an agreement, whereby each son – through his trust – would buy the company stock of a deceased brother. If one brother died, for example, the remaining two would buy his stock. In the jargon, this is called a “cross purchase.”

This takes money, so each trust bought life insurance on the two other brothers.

This too takes money, which grandmom forwarded from her trust.

How much money? About $30 million for single-premium life policies.


Obviously the moving company was extremely successful. Also obviously there must have been a life insurance person celebrating like a madman that day.

The only thing grandmom’s trust wanted was to be reimbursed the greater of the policies’ cash value or cumulative premiums paid.

Which gets us to those IRS Regulations from back when.

The IRS had decreed that henceforth SDAs would be divided into two camps:

(1) The employee owns the policy and the employer has a right to the cash value or some other amount.

This works fine until the premiums get expensive. Under this scenario the employee either has income or has a loan. Income of course is taxable, and the IRS insisted that a loan behave like a loan. The employee had to pay interest and the employer had to report interest income, with whatever income tax consequence followed.

And a loan has to be paid back. Many SDAs are set-up with the intent of the employee walking away someday. How will he/she pay back the loan at that time? This is a serious problem for the tax planners. 

(2)  The employer owns the policy and the employee has a right to something – likely the insurance in excess of the cash value or cumulative premiums paid.

The employee has income under this scenario, equal to the value of the insurance he/she is receiving annually. The life insurance companies publish tables, so practitioners can plan for this number.

But this leaves a dangerous possible tax issue: what happens once the cash value exceeds the amount to which the employer is entitled (say cumulative premiums)? Let’s say the cash value goes up by $250,000, and the employer’s share is met. Does the employee have $250,000 in income? There is a lot of lawyering on this point.

The Court decided that the grandmom had the second type – type (2) of SDA, albeit of the “family” and not the “employer” variety. The sons’ trusts had to report income equal the economic benefit of the life insurance, the same as an employee under the classic model.

This doesn’t sound like much, but the IRS was swinging for a type (1) SDA. If the sons’ trusts owned the policies, the next tax question would be the source of the money. The IRS was arguing that the grandmom trust made taxable gifts to the sons. Granted the gift and estate tax exclusion has been raised to over $5 million, but $30 million is more than $5 million and would trigger a hefty gift tax. The IRS was smelling money here.                 

The partial summary was solely on the income tax issue.

The Court will get back to the gift tax issue.

However, having won the income tax issue must make the Morrissette family feel better about winning the gift tax issue. According to the IRS’ own rules, grandmom’s trust owned the policies. What was the gift when the trust will get back all its money? The attorneys can defend from high ground, so to speak.

And there is one more thing.

Grandmom passed away. She was already in her 90s when the sons’ trusts were set up.

She died with the sons’ trusts owing her trust around $30 million.

Which her estate will not collect until the sons pass away or the SDAs are terminated. Who knows when that will be?

And what is a dollar worth X years from now? 

One thing we can agree on is that it not worth a dollar today.

Her estate valued the SDA receivables at approximately $7 million.

And the IRS is coming after her. There is no way the IRS is going to roll-over on those split dollar arrangements reducing her estate by $23 million.

You know the IRS did not think this through back in 2002 when they were writing and rewriting the split dollar rules.

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