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What Is a See-Through Trust?

·5 min read
A see-through trust enables a person to pass their retirement assets on to beneficiaries after they die.
A see-through trust enables a person to pass their retirement assets on to beneficiaries after they die.

A see-through trust is a legal arrangement that enables a person to pass retirement assets from an individual retirement account to beneficiaries after his or her death. A properly-constructed trust protects assets from creditors and can parcel out money to beneficiaries according to the wishes of the grantor who set up the trust. A financial advisor can help you create an estate plan for the specific needs of your beneficiaries. Let’s break down how a see-through trust works.

Conduit Trust vs. Accumulation Trust

There are generally two types of see-through trusts: conduit and accumulation trusts. While the two variations ultimately achieve the same goal — distributing retirement assets to beneficiaries — they differ in how the money is doled out and taxed.

As distributions from a grantor’s retirement account are made to a conduit trust, the trustee immediately transfers those assets to the beneficiaries of the trust. An accumulation trust, on the other hand, gives the trustee the authority to pay out or retain distributions within the trust, where the money can continue to grow.

The taxes owed on distributions from conduit and accumulation trusts can also vary. While a conduit beneficiary will pay income tax on the money they receive, distributions from accumulation trusts are typically taxed at higher rates.

For reference, the table below briefly compares the advantages of nine other common types of trusts:

Overview of Different Types of Trusts Marital Trusts (“A” Trust) Established by one spouse for the benefit of the other. The surviving spouse gets assets in the trust along with any income. This allows surviving spouses to avoid paying taxes on assets during their lifetimes. But heirs must pay taxes on remaining assets that they inherit. Bypass Trust (“B” or Credit Shelter Trust) Established to reduce estate tax for heirs. This is an irrevocable trust where the surviving spouse manages assets but doesn’t inherit. This protects remaining assets for beneficiaries who will inherit remaining assets tax-free. Charitable Trust Established to divide assets between specific charities and beneficiaries, or pass on remaining assets to a designated charity. Generation-Skipping Trust Established to pass assets to grandchildren while allowing children to potentially access income generated from those assets tax-free. Life Insurance Trust This is an irrevocable trust that is designated as the beneficiary of a life insurance policy to avoid estate taxes on policy payouts. Special Needs Trust Established to pay for medical care or day-to-day expenses of special needs dependents, which allows them to remain eligible for government benefits. Spendthrift Trust This trust structures and limits beneficiary access to assets to avoid misuse. Beneficiaries could access income or interest earned from assets but may be excluded from getting the principal amount. Testamentary Trust This trust becomes irrevocable upon the owner’s death, and is established through a last will and testament. Beneficiaries can access assets only at a predetermined time. Totten Trust This trust is payable-on-death to the beneficiary named in the account. How and When Money Is Distributed

A see-through trust enables a person to pass their retirement assets on to beneficiaries after they die.
A see-through trust enables a person to pass their retirement assets on to beneficiaries after they die.

See-through trusts and estate planning were in the news after President Donald Trump signed the Setting Every Community Up for Retirement Act (SECURE) into law in late 2019. The law altered a provision that allowed non-spouse beneficiaries to “stretch” distributions over the course many years, if not decades.

Before the SECURE Act, required minimum distributions from inherited IRAs were based on a beneficiary’s life expectancy. Spreading distributions out over decades reduced a beneficiary’s tax liability and kept more money in the market for longer.

But the 2019 law requires all assets from the original retirement account to be distributed within 10 years of the original owner’s death. As a result, beneficiaries may face steeper tax bills on money they receive from a see-through trust.

Other Requirements for See-Through Trusts

There are several specific requirements that see-through trusts must meet to become legal entities:

  • The trust must be valid in the state where it was established.

  • The trust is irrevocable or become irrevocable following the death of the grantor, meaning the terms of the arrangement cannot be changed.

  • Beneficiaries are identifiable.

  • The trustee has provided the custodian of the retirement account with requisite documentation by Oct. 31 of the year that follows the grantor’s death.

Bottom Line

A see-through trust enables a person to pass their retirement assets on to beneficiaries after they die.
A see-through trust enables a person to pass their retirement assets on to beneficiaries after they die.

Setting up a see-through trust can be a valuable component of estate planning, ensuring that a person’s retirement assets are passed down to beneficiaries of their choosing. While conduit and accumulation trusts may differ in how and when money is distributed by the trust, they both are required under the 2019 SECURE Act to disburse the grantor’s assets within 10 years of the person’s death.

Tips for Estate Planning

  • Consult an estate-planning attorney if you’re thinking about setting up a see-through trust. Working with a financial advisor can also ensure that you’re properly planning for the future. SmartAsset’s financial advisor tool can match you with up to three local financial advisors, and you can choose the one who is best for you. If you’re ready, get started now.

  • If you’re concerned about leaving loved ones with the burden of paying taxes on your retirement assets when you’re gone, consider converting your traditional IRA account to a Roth account and assuming the tax bill yourself.

Photo credit: ©iStock.com/Andrii Dodonov, ©iStock.com/shapecharge, ©iStock.com/ridvan_celik

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