What is a grantor trust, and how does it work?

1 min read by Unbiased team Last updated June 28, 2024

Discover the various types of grantor trusts and their unique estate planning benefits.


  • Revocable living trusts allow the grantor in a trust to maintain control over assets during their lifetime with the flexibility to alter terms or dissolve the trust. 

  • Irrevocable life insurance trusts exclude life insurance proceeds from the grantor's estate, saving on estate taxes. 

  • Grantor retained annuity trusts enable the transfer of asset appreciation to beneficiaries free of gift and estate taxes. 

  • A financial advisor is best placed to help you navigate your finances and ensure your assets are passed on in the most tax-efficient manner. 

What are grantor trusts? 

When planning your estate, one essential tool to consider is the grantor trust.  

Grantor trusts play a significant role in managing and protecting assets, providing a strategic approach to estate and tax planning.  

By definition, a grantor trust is a legal entity created to hold assets for the benefit of beneficiaries, with the grantor retaining significant control.  

The primary purpose of establishing a grantor trust is to manage and protect assets while minimizing estate and income taxes. 

What are the key features of grantor trusts? 

One fundamental characteristic of grantor trusts is that the grantor maintains control over the trust assets and is responsible for paying income tax on the trust’s earnings.  

This arrangement differs from non-grantor trusts, where the trust itself is considered a separate taxable entity.  

In grantor trusts, grantor trust taxation means the grantor's tax obligations continue as if the trust does not exist, which can lead to strategic tax planning advantages. 

What are the different kinds of grantor trusts? 

Grantor trusts come in various forms, each serving unique purposes in estate planning: 

  • Revocable living trusts 

Revocable living trusts allow the grantor to maintain control over the trust assets during their lifetime and provide the flexibility to alter the terms or dissolve the trust as needed.  

This control ensures that the grantor can manage their assets and make changes in response to life events or changes in intentions.  

Upon the grantor's death, the assets in the trust are distributed to the beneficiaries without the need for probate. 

  • Irrevocable life insurance trusts (ILITs) 

ILITs are designed to exclude life insurance proceeds from the grantor's estate, potentially saving on estate taxes.  

By placing a life insurance policy within an ILIT, the proceeds are not considered part of the taxable estate upon the grantor's death.  

This setup can result in significant estate tax savings, making it an effective tool for those with large estates subject to federal estate taxes. 

  • Qualified personal residence trusts (QPRTs) 

QPRTs allow the transfer of a personal residence to heirs at a reduced tax cost while permitting the grantor to use the property for a set period.  

By transferring the residence into the trust, the grantor can reduce the taxable value of the gift. After the specified period, the property is transferred to the beneficiaries, though the grantor may continue to live in the home by paying rent to the beneficiaries. 

  • Grantor retained annuity trusts (GRATs) 

GRATs enable the grantor to transfer asset appreciation to beneficiaries free of gift and estate taxes while retaining a fixed annuity payment for a term.  

The grantor places assets into the trust and receives an annual annuity payment.  

If the assets appreciate beyond the IRS's assumed interest rate, the excess growth passes to the beneficiaries without additional taxes, making GRATs a powerful tool for transferring wealth tax-efficiently. 

  • Intentionally defective grantor trusts (IDGTs) 

IDGTs are used for estate-freezing purposes.  

While the grantor pays taxes on the trust's income, the trust itself is not included in the grantor's estate.  

This setup reduces the taxable estate over time as the grantor continues to pay income taxes, effectively freezing the estate's value while transferring appreciation to the beneficiaries. This strategy can be particularly advantageous for assets expected to appreciate significantly. 

How do you establish a grantor trust? 

Establishing a grantor trust involves several steps: 

  1. Draft the trust document: Work with an estate planning attorney to create a detailed trust document that outlines the terms and conditions. This document specifies the trust's purpose, the grantor of a trust, the trustee, and the beneficiaries. 

  2. Define the terms: Clearly define how the trust will operate, including the rules for managing assets, making distributions, and any conditions under which the trust may be terminated. 

  3. Transfer the assets: Transfer the chosen assets into the trust. This may involve changing titles and beneficiary designations. 

What are the tax implications of grantor trusts? 

The tax responsibilities associated with grantor trusts vary based on the trust type.  

Generally, income generated by grantor trusts is taxed to the grantor, providing opportunities for strategic tax planning.  

For example, in an IDGT, the grantor pays income taxes on trust earnings, reducing the overall taxable estate.  

Understanding these implications is crucial for optimizing your estate plan. 

What are the benefits of using a grantor trust in estate planning? 

Grantor trusts offer numerous benefits, including: 

  • Reducing estate and gift taxes through strategic asset transfers and income tax responsibilities. 

  • Maintaining control over trust assets and make adjustments as needed. 

  • Protecting assets from creditors and legal claims. 

How do you manage a grantor trust? 

Managing a grantor trust involves: 

  • Maintaining records: Keep detailed records of trust activities and transactions. 

  • Managing assets: Oversee investments and ensure assets are managed according to the trust’s terms. 

  • Handling distributions: Ensure distributions are made as specified in the trust document. 

Professional advisors, including attorneys and financial planners, play a crucial role in the effective administration of grantor trusts.  

They ensure compliance with legal requirements and optimize the trust's benefits.

Get expert financial advice 

Incorporating a grantor trust into your estate plan can provide significant advantages, from tax savings to asset protection. By understanding the various types and their specific benefits, you can make informed decisions that align with your estate planning goals. 

Unbiased will connect you with a financial advisor for expert financial advice to help you navigate the complexities of estate planning. 


Unbiased team

Our team of writers, who have decades of experience writing about personal finance, including investing and retirement, are here to help you find out what you must know about life’s biggest financial decisions.