Trust & Estate

Pros and Cons of Irrevocable Trusts

Pros and Cons of Irrevocable Trusts
March 22, 2024

What is an Irrevocable Trust?

An irrevocable trust is a type of trust where the grantor (the person creating the trust) transfers ownership of assets into the trust and gives up their rights of ownership to the assets. The trust becomes the new owner of the assets, which are managed by a trustee for the benefit of designated beneficiaries.

The key characteristic of an irrevocable trust is that its terms cannot be modified, amended, or terminated without the permission of the beneficiaries or a court order1. This is in contrast to a revocable trust, which allows the grantor to change the trust's terms at any time.

Irrevocable trusts are commonly used for estate and tax planning purposes, especially by high net worth individuals and families looking to minimize estate taxes and protect assets. By removing assets from the grantor's ownership, it reduces the taxable value of their estate1.

Pros of Irrevocable Trusts

  1. Estate Tax Savings: Assets placed in an irrevocable trust are generally not included in the grantor's taxable estate upon their death. For wealthy estates that would be subject to the federal estate tax (which has an exemption amount of $12.92 million per individual in 2023), using an irrevocable trust can provide significant tax savings3.
  2. Asset Protection: Assets held in an irrevocable trust are typically shielded from creditors and lawsuits against the grantor. This makes these trusts appealing for professionals like doctors and lawyers who have a high lawsuit risk1. However, if a trust is created when a lawsuit is anticipated, a court may overturn it5.
  3. Government Benefits: Irrevocable trusts can be structured to provide financial support for a beneficiary with special needs without disqualifying them from government benefits like Medicaid or Supplemental Security Income (SSI)5. The trust owns the assets, not the beneficiary.
  4. Avoiding Probate: When a grantor dies, assets in an irrevocable trust can pass directly to beneficiaries without going through the lengthy and public probate process5. This saves time and maintains privacy.
  5. Charitable Giving: Charitable remainder trusts and charitable lead trusts allow the grantor to support charities while still providing assets for beneficiaries. Charitable trusts can offer income, gift, and estate tax deductions3.

Cons of Irrevocable Trusts

  1. Loss of Control: Because the grantor gives up ownership and control of assets placed in an irrevocable trust, they cannot easily change their mind or access the assets if needed1. The trust agreement terms are very difficult to modify after the fact.
  2. Costs: Setting up and maintaining an irrevocable trust can be expensive. An estate planning attorney is typically necessary to draft the trust agreement, and trustee fees, accounting costs, and other administrative expenses can add up over time1.
  3. Complexity: Irrevocable trusts are complex legal structures with many rules and restrictions. Improperly drafted trusts can have unintended tax and legal consequences. It's crucial to work with a knowledgeable attorney and tax professional.
  4. Medicaid Ineligibility: If an irrevocable trust is used to qualify for Medicaid coverage of long-term care, the grantor may be ineligible for a period of time. There is a five-year "look-back" period for assets transferred to most irrevocable trusts5.
  5. Taxes on Income: Income generated by assets in an irrevocable trust is taxable. The trust must obtain its own taxpayer ID number and file an annual tax return. If income is not distributed to beneficiaries, the trust itself pays taxes, often at a higher rate than individuals1.

Impact on High Net Worth Individuals and Families

For high net worth individuals and families with estates worth more than the federal estate tax exemption amount, irrevocable trusts can provide a way to reduce the estate tax burden on heirs. By transferring appreciating or high-value assets to an irrevocable trust, the grantor can remove those assets from their taxable estate while still providing for beneficiaries3.

However, the estate tax exemption amount is scheduled to be cut roughly in half in 2026, which may increase the number of estates subject to the tax4. Those with irrevocable trusts need to review their estate plans in light of this change and the new IRS rules impacting the "step-up in basis" for assets inherited from these trusts.

The step-up in basis allows heirs to inherit assets at their current market value (rather than the grantor's original cost basis), minimizing capital gains taxes. Under the new IRS rule, assets in an irrevocable trust must be included in the grantor's taxable estate to receive the step-up4. This may require changes to existing trusts.

Irrevocable trusts can also help high net worth families protect assets from creditors and lawsuits, maintain privacy, manage assets for heirs who may be minors or have special needs, and facilitate charitable giving in a tax-efficient manner. However, the loss of control and flexibility means irrevocable trusts require very careful consideration and planning.


Irrevocable trusts offer many potential benefits, including estate tax savings, asset protection, avoidance of probate, and charitable giving options. However, their inflexibility and complexity are major drawbacks to consider. For high net worth individuals and families, irrevocable trusts can be a powerful estate planning tool, but they require proper structuring and ongoing management to achieve the desired outcomes. It's essential to consult with experienced estate planning professionals to determine if an irrevocable trust is appropriate for your specific financial situation and goals.