What Is an Irrevocable Life Insurance Trust (ILIT)?

Irrevocable Life Insurance Trust is a type of trust that it is funded during your lifetime with one or more life insurance policies. It is irrevocable, which means that once you create an ILIT the trust generally cannot be changed or revoked; the terms of the trust agreement are pretty much set in stone.

In exchange for moving your life insurance policy into the trust, an ILIT provides certain advantages.

For one, an ILIT can help you avoid having your policy death benefit included in your estate for federal estate tax purposes. At the same time, an ILIT gives you the ability to direct, through the trust document, how and when the death benefit is used, and for whom.

Funding a trust with life insurance can also help provide the cash needed to cover estate taxes and other expenses after you die. That helps avoid having to sell a business or other high-value asset to cover those costs. Plus, “an ILIT enables you to fully leverage the annual gift tax exclusion — $15,000 per donee or beneficiary in 2019 — by using those gifts to pay the premiums on the life insurance in the trust.

Does An Irrevocable Life Insurance Trust Still Make Sense Today?

So what role can ILITs play now, even with the current estate tax environment? Here’s what to consider if you’re weighing whether to open an ILIT.

1: The current estate tax laws are set to revert. The new federal estate tax exemptions are temporary. Unless the laws are changed, these higher limits will sunset and revert back to prior limits ($5 million for individuals and $10 million for couples, inflation adjusted) beginning in 2026. Individuals with rapidly appreciating property or a growing business may want to consider “taking advantage of these higher limits by creating a new trust or adding to an existing one before the limits are halved,” Elbert suggests.

2: You may still have a state estate tax problem. The federal estate tax isn’t the only concern for many affluent Americans; some states levy their own separate estate tax. The life insurance death benefit within an ILIT can provide the funds to cover those taxes and other expenses.

3: ILITs provide protection beyond taxes. An ILIT provides a number of advantages beyond the ability to provide a tax-free death benefit. This includes protecting your insurance benefits from divorce, creditors and legal action against you and your beneficiaries. An ILIT also avoids probate and shields assets from expense and loss of privacy during probate.

An ILIT can be used to protect an inheritance for a minor child, a loved one with special needs or an adult child who lacks the maturity or financial savvy to handle a large sum of money. “It can also provide liquidity to fund a business succession plan or to avoid having to sell an illiquid asset, such as a family business or a home. It can also help equalize inheritance among multiple beneficiaries.

Of course, no one knows for certain what the future will bring for estate taxes and exemptions. Nonetheless, an ILIT can provide you, your loved ones and your estate with significant benefits. To determine if an ILIT makes sense for your needs and goals, and to leverage the opportunities offered by the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, it’s important to review your estate plan with your financial and legal advisors, as well as your tax professional, today.

Advantages of irrevocable life insurance trusts

Life insurance trusts have several advantages for estate planners and individuals, with the main one being minimizing and paying for estate taxes.

1: Minimizing estate taxes

If you own a life insurance policy and you pass away, the death benefit from the plan is considered an asset and thus is included within your aggregate estate. But, if you were to place the life insurance within the ILIT, then the death benefit proceeds would not be included in your estate and would not become taxable.

In some cases, by not including your life insurance, you may be able to reduce your entire estate net worth below the federal exemption level and avoid the taxes altogether.

2: Paying for estate taxes with death benefit proceeds

By setting up the trust correctly, death benefit proceeds could be used to help pay for estate taxes on other assets of the deceased.

For example, say you have accumulated an estate of $15 million that consists of property, retirement accounts and stocks. At that level you would need to pay estate tax. Your trustee could use the death benefit proceeds from your life insurance policy to bear the burden of that tax, thus allowing your beneficiaries to receive the full value of the other assets outside of the trust.

How to set up a trust

Setting up a trust properly can be a confusing process, and we recommend reaching out to a financial planning professional such as a CPA, bank or trust planner. If you do not set up a trust properly, then the many benefits of these financial vessels could not be realized.


ILITs are a powerful tool that should be considered in many wealth management plans to help ensure that your policy is used in the best possible way to benefit your family. And even with the federal estate and gift tax exemption at $11,580,000 ($11,700,000 in 2021), it is still possible to owe state estate taxes. Many states begin taxing your estate at $1 million or less.

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