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Scandinavian coupleTrusts can be a useful tool for estate planning if you’d like to preserve assets for loved ones while minimizing estate taxes. A qualified domestic trust (QDOT) is a specific type of trust that can offer tax benefits for married couples. With a QDOT, a surviving spouse can qualify for the marital deduction on estate taxes for assets included in the trust. This type of arrangement can be particularly helpful when a surviving spouse is not a U.S. citizen. Here’s more on how these trusts work, the benefits and limitations of having one and how to establish a QDOT as part of your estate plan. Estate planning is always done best in consultation with a financial advisor.

Qualified Domestic Trust (QDOT), Explained

A trust is a legal arrangement in which you transfer assets to the control of a trustee. This can be yourself or someone else you name and it’s the trustee’s duty to manage assets in the trust on behalf of the trust’s beneficiaries.

A QDOT is a specific type of trust arrangement that’s designed to benefit married couples, specifically when one spouse is not a U.S. citizen. This type of trust extends the marital tax deduction to non-citizen spouses, who would otherwise not be eligible to claim the deduction on estate taxes.

If you’re married to someone who is not a U.S. citizen, then setting up this type of trust could make sense if you’d like to minimize any tax burden your spouse may assume if you pass away first. A QDOT can essentially create a tax shelter for non-citizen spouses as part of an estate plan.

How a QDOT Works

To understand how a QDOT can benefit a non-citizen spouse, it’s helpful to understand the marital deduction and how that applies to estate taxes. Ordinarily, the Internal Revenue Code allows surviving spouses to claim a 100% marital deduction for estate taxes that may be due on assets they inherit when their spouse passes away. This is a significant tax break, as it enables surviving spouses to assume control of marital assets without getting hit with a sizable tax bill.

When a married couple consists of one spouse who’s a U.S. citizen and one who is not, the marital deduction does not apply. That means a surviving spouse could face substantial estate taxes on any assets they assume control of after their spouse passes away. Creating a QDOT and transferring assets to it with the non-citizen spouse named as beneficiary solves this problem.

Assets held in the trust would go to the surviving non-citizen spouse, allowing them the benefit of using those assets as well as any income they generate. They would pay no estate tax on assets in the trust. The surviving spouse could then pass those assets on to their children or another named beneficiary when they pass away. If applicable, the estate tax would be due on those assets at that time.

Benefits of a QDOT

Estate planning documents

The main advantage of including a QDOT in your estate plan is to extend tax benefits to your spouse if they’re not a U.S. citizen and don’t plan to apply for citizenship. A surviving spouse would be able to enjoy the marital tax deduction on estate taxes. They’d also be able to receive income distributions from the trust. Those would be subject to income tax but not estate tax. If you have a sizable estate then setting up a QDOT could be worth it to ensure that you’re passing on as much of your wealth as possible to your spouse.

While setting up this type of trust is generally more complicated and expensive than setting up a basic living trust, it may be an easier way to afford tax protections to a non-citizen spouse versus having them pursue citizenship.

Limitations of a QDOT

While there are some advantages to QDOT, there are some potential downsides to keep in mind.

First, it’s important to note that the IRS is specific about how these types of trusts are set up. The trustee must be a U.S. citizen and depending on the amount of assets that are held in the trust, a secondary trustee may be necessary. This trustee must be a U.S. bank.

Once the spouse who created the trust passes away, their executor must make a QDOT election when filing a federal estate tax return. This is necessary to qualify for the marital deduction. The IRS specifies that the estate tax return with the QDOT election must be filed no later than nine months after the individual who created the trust passes away.

Estate tax may be due if a surviving spouse receives principal from the trust, rather than income. There are, however, some exceptions to this rule. For instance, if a surviving spouse is experiencing financial hardship and has no other assets to tap into it may be possible to receive principal from the trust without being required to pay estate tax.

Perhaps most importantly, spouses should be aware that a QDOT only extends to assets held in the trust. If you have other assets you wish to pass on to a surviving spouse who’s not a U.S. citizen, those wouldn’t be eligible for the marital deduction protection offered by a QDOT if they’re not included in the trust.

How to Set Up a QDOT

Setting up a QDOT starts with determining whether it’s something you can benefit from having in the first place. If you’re married to someone who is not a U.S. citizen, then it may be worth meeting with your financial advisor to discuss the pros and cons of including a QDOT in your estate plan. Your advisor can help to assess any potential estate tax consequences associated with passing on wealth to a non-citizen spouse.

If you’ve determined that a QDOT is something you need, the next step is finding an experienced estate planning attorney who can help with setting one up. Creating a QDOT  means understanding which IRS rules apply and that’s something an estate planning attorney or a tax professional can help with.

The Bottom Line

Elderly black couple

A QDOT could be useful to have if you’re married and you want to minimize tax impacts associated with leaving assets to a non-citizen spouse. The biggest considerations to keep in mind are what assets you’ll transfer to the trust and how those will be managed on behalf of your spouse once you pass away. Again, getting help from a tax professional, estate planning attorney and your financial advisor can make creating this type of trust as smooth a process as possible.

Tips for Estate Planning

  • Consider talking to a financial advisor about the tax implications of passing on assets to a non-citizen spouse and whether it makes sense to have a QDOT. If you don’t have a financial advisor yet, finding one doesn’t have to be difficult. SmartAsset’s financial advisor matching tool makes it easy to connect in just minutes with professional advisors in your local area.  If you’re ready then get started now.
  • Wondering if you have enough to retire? Our free, easy-to-use retirement calculator can give you a good estimate of your annual, post-tax income upon retirement.

Photo credit: ©iStock.com/Robin Skjoldborg, ©iStock.com/courtneyk, ©iStock.com/monkeybusinessimages

Rebecca Lake Rebecca Lake is a retirement, investing and estate planning expert who has been writing about personal finance for a decade. Her expertise in the finance niche also extends to home buying, credit cards, banking and small business. She's worked directly with several major financial and insurance brands, including Citibank, Discover and AIG and her writing has appeared online at U.S. News and World Report, CreditCards.com and Investopedia. Rebecca is a graduate of the University of South Carolina and she also attended Charleston Southern University as a graduate student. Originally from central Virginia, she now lives on the North Carolina coast along with her two children.
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