What Is a Credit Shelter Trust?

A Credit Shelter Trust is designed to allow affluent couples to reduce or completely avoid estate taxes when passing assets on to heirs, typically the couple's children. This type of irrevocable trust is structured so that upon the death of the trust's creator or settler, the assets specified in the trust agreement and the income they generate are transferred to the settlor's spouse. 

However, a key benefit to this type of trust is that the surviving spouse maintains certain rights to the trust assets during the remainder of his or her lifetime. Under specific circumstances such as the need to fund certain medical or educational expenses, the surviving spouse can tap into the trust's principal and not just the income. And upon the surviving spouse's death, the trust's assets are transferred to the remaining beneficiaries without any estate taxes levied.

Key Takeaways

  • Credit shelter trusts are trusts for affluent couples to minimize or avoid their estate tax liabilities by passing on proceeds from individual estates onto the partner's estate.
  • The estate, gift and generation-skipping transfer tax (GSTT) is currently set at a $10 million base for individuals and a $20 million base for couples.

Understanding Credit Shelter Trusts (CST)

Credit shelter trusts are created upon a married individual's death and funded with that person's entire estate or a portion of it as outlined in the trust agreement. These assets then flow to the surviving spouse. But because the trust is managed by a designated trustee, the surviving spouse never actually takes control of the trust's assets. Therefore, the transfer does not add to the surviving spouse's taxable estate. Credit shelter trusts are also known as AB Trusts or Bypass Trusts. This is because CSTs are essentially bypass trusts in which each spouse has a separate "taxable" estate. These estates are known as A trust and B trust.

How Do Credit Shelter Trusts Offer Tax Protection?

Credit shelter trusts are designed so that couples can take full advantage of estate tax exemptions. In 2020, generation skipping transfer tax (GSTT) exemption is $11.58 million for individuals and $23.16 million for couples. However, in 2019 it was 11.4 million (individual) and $22.8 million (couples). This lasts until December 31, 2025 — considering Congress doesn't drastically update the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act until then. 

Example of a Credit Shelter Trust

Suppose a husband and wife who have been married for several years each accumulates an estate worth $6 million and the husband sets up a credit shelter trust to be funded upon his death with his share of their combined estate. After the husband dies, his $6 million estate and any income it generated passes estate-tax free onto his wife because it falls below the federal exemption.

However, the transfer boosts the wife's net income to $12 million and past the estate-tax exemption. But because these assets were held in the trust outside of her control, her taxable estate is still valued at $6 million and still within the estate-tax exemption. Thus, she can pass on her assets to her children estate-tax free when she dies.