Charitable Reverse Split-Dollar Insurance: A Gift Whose Time Has Past

Charitable Reverse Split-Dollar Insurance: A Gift Whose Time Has Past

Article posted in Intangible Personal Property on 3 March 1999| comments
audience: Partnership for Philanthropic Planning, National Publication | last updated: 18 May 2011


In recent weeks, Charitable Reverse Split-Dollar Insurance has received a great deal of attention and is the subject of pending legislation that would prohibit it entirely. In this edition of Gift Planner's Digest, San Francisco attorney, Erik Dryburgh reviews the potential risks to donors and charities considering CRSD transactions, and offers advice to those who have already entered into such arrangements.

by Erik Dryburgh

Erik Dryburgh is a partner at Silk, Adler & Colvin in San Francisco, CA. Dryburgh has co-authored chapters for Matthew-Bender and Wiley & Sons, is a frequent speaker in the charitable giving and estate planning areas, and has recently made presentations at events sponsored by the National Committee on Planned Giving, Northern California Planned Giving Council, Continuing Education of the State Bar of California, and various charity-sponsored events. He earned his JD at the University of California--Berkeley and is a CPA.

In the past few years, a new "charitable gift" idea rapidly began gaining popularity across the country. The gift carried many labels, but is most often called "charitable reverse split-dollar insurance" (CRSD). A significant number of the author's nonprofit clients have been approached at least once regarding a CRSD gift.

CRSD plans have been around for many years, but have become much more common recently. Unfortunately, much of the analysis and legal opinions that are presented to the charity as part of the proposal are directed at the issues facing the insured donor, and do not address the issues facing the charity.

Both the IRS and Congress have recently begun taking a serious look at CRSD gifts. Marcus Owens, director of the IRS Exempt Organizations Division, has said that the IRS is examining CRSD arrangements as to both improper donor benefits and potential violation of tax laws by participating charities. Apparently, the IRS is reviewing CRSD plans in both audits and existing charities, and exemption applications filed by new organizations. On February 9, 1999, Representative Bill Archer introduced H.R. 630, a bill to clarify the status of charitable split-dollar arrangements and seeks to reiterate the denial of the charitable contribution deduction for transfers associated with split-dollar insurance arrangements.[Exhibit A] The National Committee on Planned Giving, which has taken a strong stand against such arrangements issued a resolution by its board of directors on February 20, 1999 in support of Archer's legislation. [Exhibit B]

The following is a basic review of charitable reverse split-dollar insurance arrangements and the possible consequences to donors and charities.

CRSD Gifts

CRSD arrangements generally are presented to donors who own closely held corporations, although a closely held corporation can be established to facilitate the arrangement if the donor does not already own one already. In its most simple form, a CRSD gift begins with the donor purchasing a whole or universal life insurance policy. The donor and the company then enter into a "split-dollar agreement," under which the corporation agrees to pay a certain portion of the annual premium payments. The corporation's premium share is the amount that, under the Treasury's PS-58 tables (Rev. Rul. 55-747, 1955-2 CB 228), represents the annual cost of the renewable term portion of the insurance policy. In consideration for this agreement, the donor assigns a portion of the death benefit to the corporation. In addition, the donor and the corporation agree that the corporation should "pre-pay" its share of the premiums. Premiums that would normally be paid over 20 to 30 years will instead be paid in five or ten years. This creates an "unearned premium account," which represents the premiums that the insurance company has not yet earned, but that have nevertheless been paid. This account grows for the five or ten-year-period during which the corporation overpays the premium. It is then spent down by the insurance company over the following years to pay for those years' premiums.

The split-dollar agreement also provides that, should the insured die while there is a balance in the unearned premium account, it will be paid to the corporation in addition to its share of the death benefit. Finally, the donor is allowed to borrow a significant portion of the policy value, but that amount is limited to ensure that the corporation's share of the death benefit and unearned premium account remains in the policy.

This split-dollar arrangement becomes a CRSD when the corporation assigns all of its rights and duties in the split-dollar agreement to a charity. At the same time, the donor lets it be known that he or she will make annual cash gifts to the charity in an amount equal to the charity's premium payment. All CRSD proposals acknowledge no agreement to make these contributions can be binding on the donor, but make it clear that the charity can rely on the donor's continued "generosity."

There are many variations on the above theme, involving insurance trusts, partnerships, and other legal entities. Nonetheless, the basic concepts and legal risks are the same.

Example. The following example is very similar to a CRSD proposal the author recently reviewed. In addition to changing the names to protect the innocent, the fact pattern has been altered in one other significant respect--the real charity was also asked to pay $5,000 in legal fees associated with structuring the transaction! This element was deleted in the following example, as most proposals have not included this request.

Facts. The donor is John Street, age 45. Street or his corporation will make contributions to the charity totaling $203,224. The charity will use the contributions to make premium payments on a life insurance policy, of which Street is the insured and owner. The premium payments are accelerated--instead of paying premiums over a period of approximately 25 years, payments of a substantially larger dollar amount are to be made over four years. Because the premium payments exceed the amount actually required to purchase the policy in the early years, an unearned premium account is created, which includes the excess premiums and the earnings on the premiums.

Under an irrevocable assignment, the charity will receive an interest in the policy equal to: 1) $500,000 of death benefit, payable on the death of Street, plus 2) the unearned premium account, if any. If Street terminates the policy, the charity will receive the unearned premium account. The year-by-year specifics of the arrangement are shown in Exhibit C.

Consequences To Charity. The financial consequences to the charity of this proposed gift follows:

If Street terminates the policy before his death, the charity receives the unearned premium account. As shown in Exhibit C, this amount is always less than the amount paid to date by the charity as premiums.

If Street dies before reaching his life expectancy, the charity will receive the $500,000 of death benefit plus the unearned premium account, the value of which depends on the date of death. For example, if death occurs in Year 10, the charity receives just under $665,000 ($500,000 plus $164,937). If death occurs in Year 20, the charity receives approximately $579,000. Once Street lives approximately 25 years, the unearned premium account vanishes. The charity's benefit from that date forward is only the $500,000 death benefit.

Thus, if Street lives out his life expectancy, the charity will receive a death benefit that is approximately twice the sum of the premium payments made. Given Street's long life expectancy, the charity's rate of return on its investment would be approximately 2.5%--roughly the current rate of inflation. If Street terminates the policy, the charity loses money because it receives back something less than its investment in the policy. Only if Street dies before living out his life expectancy will the charity recoup the premiums invested plus a reasonable rate of return (the rate would vary depending on the date of death). The "best case" scenario (only as far as the charity's finances are concerned) is for Street to die in Year 4. In this situation, the charity will have paid premiums of approximately $203,000, and will receive approximately $691,000.

Issues Facing The Charity

Any charity participating in a CRSD gift will face significant legal risks. The fact that there is an "expectation" but not a "commitment" that the donor will make annual contributions equal to the charity's premium payment puts the charity in a dilemma. It must decide whether its position is that: 1) the donor's contribution and the charity's premium payment are separate and distinct events; or 2) that they are linked together.

Payments Are Separate Events. This horn of the dilemma assumes, as the CRSD materials contend, that the contribution is an unrestricted gift, and that the charity is investing in the policy with its own funds as part of its overall investment strategy.

If the charity wishes to proceed under this view, its board of directors needs to consider its fiduciary duty under state law to manage the charity's funds in a prudent manner. This duty is generally enforceable by the charity and the state Attorney General's office. While the exact language and details of the duty may vary from state to state, the majority of the states impose some sort of "prudent investor" duty on a charity's directors. [Exhibit D]

For example, the relevant law in California is contained in Corporations Code Section 5231, which provides that "a director shall perform the duties of a director?in a manner such director believes to be in the best interests of the corporation and with such care, including reasonable inquiry, as an ordinarily prudent person in a like position would use under similar circumstances." Section 5240 of the California Corporations Code further provides that in investing a charity's funds, the board shall "[a]void speculation, looking instead to the permanent disposition of the funds, considering the probable income, as well as the probable safety of the corporation's capital."

Given that it is virtually impossible for the charity to ever earn any meaningful return on the funds used to make premium payments under a split-dollar agreement like the one in the example, doing so would be a clear breach of fiduciary duty. In California and many other states, the Attorney General's office has the authority to investigate a charity's investments. If it finds that the board or a particular officer or employee is responsible for authorizing an imprudent investment, it can (and in some situations, will) seek reimbursement from the responsible director, officer, or employee.

Additionally, a charity can lose its exemption under Section 501(c)(3) if it engages in activities that result in private inurement or undue private benefit. Private inurement occurs when the assets or income of a charity inure (or pass) to the benefit of an individual deemed to be an insider. Whether the donor of a CRSD gift would be deemed an insider has not been resolved, but the IRS certainly believes that a donor may be an insider.

In its Exempt Organizations Handbook (IRM 7751, Section 381.1(2)), the IRS noted that the prohibition against private inurement precluded the acquisition of a charity's funds by its "trustees, officers, members, founders, or contributors." The companion doctrine of private benefit is applied to prohibit a tax exempt organization from providing a substantial economic benefit to an individual, whether or not the individual exercises control over the organization.

In a CRSD gift, the charity is investing its funds in an insurance policy from which it will most likely receive only a modest return. All of the earnings associated with the invested funds will be paid to the donor as loans from the policy, or to heirs as beneficiaries of the death benefit. In the proposal on which the example above was based, the death benefit payable to Street's heirs at his death would have been approximately $3 million. In short, the charity is paying the entire premium, but is receiving only a small portion of the policy value, with the balance of the policy value being paid to the donor's heirs. This would appear to be a clear case of private inurement, private benefit, or both. To avoid the problem, the charity should acquire a share of the policy benefits commensurate with its share of the premium payments: 100%.

Payments Are Linked. Is the charity better off contending that, in fact, it never actually had unfettered control over the use of the cash contributions? Clearly, the charity is unlikely to receive the cash unless it agrees to invest it in the policy. In fact, one of the proposals reviewed by the author stated that if the charity does not make the premium payments, it would be "unlikely" that future contributions would be made. The existence of this understanding might relieve the board of its fiduciary liability and preclude a finding of private inurement, or private benefit, if the charity can demonstrate that the understanding constituted a legal obligation to pay the premium.

If the charity has an obligation to use the funds to pay premiums, however, it cannot also claim that the funds constitute an unrestricted contribution. The charity in this situation is merely a conduit between the donor and the insurance company. The only benefit that the charity receives is being named as a recipient of policy benefits, payable at some point in the future. Naming a charity as a beneficiary of a life insurance policy is a gift of a partial interest that, under Section 170(f)(3), does not qualify for a charitable income tax deduction.

Nonetheless, a key element of any CRSD is that the donor can deduct the payments made to the charity and used to pay the premiums. To claim the deduction, Section 170(f)(8) requires the donor to obtain a receipt from the charity acknowledging receipt of the full amount of the cash "contribution." Many CRSD proposals even provide the charity with a sample form of receipt for this purpose. At best, a charity offering such a receipt would be in violation of Section 6115, which requires that the charity disclose on the receipt all return benefits provided to the donor for a contribution and place a value on the return benefit. Disclosing the return benefits provided to the donor (i.e., investment of the funds in a policy primarily benefiting the donor and his family) would make it clear that no deduction is available. Failure to provide a proper receipt can result in the imposition of penalties. At worst, the charity may be liable for knowingly issuing false receipts and thus aiding and abetting tax fraud.

Issues Facing The Donor

In addition to the issues facing a charity participating in a CRSD gift, it is worth mentioning the primary issue facing the donor: What, if any, charitable deduction is generated by a CRSD gift?

The proponents of CRSD gifts argue that the donor is making unrestricted gifts of cash, and is entitled to a full charitable deduction. An alternative view is that the only gift is of a nondeductible interest in the policy death benefit. Which view will prove successful may depend on whether the IRS can employ the step-transaction doctrine to collapse the various elements of the CRSD gift.

One of the leading step-transaction cases in charitable giving is the Palmer case, 62 TC 684 (1974), aff'd on other grounds, 523 F.2d 1308, 36 AFTR2d 75-5942 (CA-8, 1975). In Palmer, a donor gave shares of his closely held company to his controlled private foundation, and immediately caused the company to redeem the shares. While the redemption was clearly expected, there was no obligation to have the shares redeemed. The Tax Court thus respected the transaction as a gift of appreciated stock followed by redemption, as opposed to a partial liquidation and gift of cash. The IRS acquiesced to Palmer in Rev. Rul. 78-197, 1978-1 CB 83, setting out a bright-line legal test--whether, at the time of the gift, the donee is legally bound to complete the expected transaction or can be compelled to do so. Because there is no legal obligation that the charity use the contributions to pay CRSD premiums, Palmer and its progeny would appear to support the donor's claim to a deduction.

Palmer is not without its exceptions, however. In Blake, 967 F.2d 473, 51 AFTR2d 83-445 (CA-2, 1983), aff'g TCM 1981-597, an individual gave appreciated securities to a charity, which then sold the securities and used the proceeds to purchase a yacht from the donor at a price well in excess of its value. The IRS recharacterized the transaction as a gift of the yacht and a sale by the donor of the securities, arguing that the charity was a mere conduit for the sales proceeds. The Second Circuit sustained the Service's position, holding that the charity was legally obligated to purchase the yacht. More important, it also held that, even if the charity were not obligated to purchase the yacht, the fact that the transactions were undertaken according to an understanding arrived in advance was sufficient. As the court noted, what distinguishes Blake from Palmer is that Blake did not merely expect that the charity would sell the donated property, but he expected that the donated property (or its sales proceeds) would be immediately returned to him.

In a CRSD gift, the donated cash is invested in an asset (the insurance policy) that is wholly owned by the donor. Additionally, the donor has access to the value of the policy via a loan. It would not be unexpected for the IRS to argue that the donated cash was, in essence, returned to the donor and that Blake is the applicable law.

Several proposals that the author has reviewed have acknowledged that there is a risk that a donor's income tax deductions may be denied. The result would, or course, be an understatement of tax, triggering additional tax plus interest. In addition, the penalty provisions of Section 6662 could apply if the understatement is large enough, and the donor cannot demonstrate substantial authority for the reporting position.

Even those CRSD proposals that acknowledge the income tax risk fail to mention another potentially more devastating risk--the loss of the donor's gift tax deduction. Section 2522(c)(2) denies a gift tax deduction for gifts of partial interests, similar to the Section 170(f) restrictions applicable to income tax deductions. Imagine the reaction of a donor who discovers not only that he or she gets no income tax deduction for his or her "contribution," but owes gift tax on it as well.


For CRSD gifts (and most other gifts as well), the charity should not pay the legal fees of the donor's counsel. Payment of these fees even further reduces the charity's return, as well as raising additional quid pro quo issues.

If H.R. 630 becomes law, then naturally all CRSD gifts should cease. Until we know whether H.R. 630 is to become law, it is recommended that charities do not enter into any CRSD arrangement.

If the bill does not pass, a charity should agree to participate in a CRSD gift only if it makes clear to the donor that: 1) it does not consider itself bound to pay any premiums; and 2) the board will evaluate its options for the investment of the contributed funds as part of its overall investment strategy, consistent with its fiduciary obligations.

If, despite this warning, the charity actually receives a CRSD gift, it should seriously consider pursuing an alternative investment. Additionally, the charity must issue a receipt that accurately reflects what it receives. If the funds are not used to pay the policy premium, the receipt can appropriately reflect an unrestricted gift of cash. If the charity pays the policy premium, however, the receipt should reflect a nondeductible gift.

Charities that have already accepted a CRSD gift need to evaluate the propriety of the investment and whether the charity is willing to continue sending receipts reflecting a gift of cash. The charity should review the split-dollar agreement to determine what its obligations are and the process, if any, for terminating the arrangement. As an alternative to terminating the arrangement, the charity may be able to assign its interest under the split-dollar agreement back to the donor or his/her related entity.

Mr. Dryburgh welcomes your questions and feedback:

Exhibit A - H.R. 630

Commentary and the Full Text of H.R. 630 was reported by the PGDC on February 10, 1999.

EXHIBIT B - National Committee on Planned Giving Board of Directors Resolution

WHEREAS, the National Committee on Planned Giving (NCPG) Board of Directors has taken the position that charitable split-dollar and charitable reverse split-dollar (CRSD) arrangements raise unacceptable risks to donors and charitable organizations, and;

WHEREAS, the Board of Directors on February 1, 1998, by unanimous resolution encouraged members of NCPG councils to refrain from promoting or participating in CRSD arrangements pending further clarification on technical matters including the application of partial interest rules, quid pro quo receipting requirements, and private inurement rules, and;

WHEREAS the Board of Directors also resolved to warn potential donors that they may incur adverse tax consequences and to caution charities that they may risk loss of tax exempt status if they participate in CRSD programs without prior IRS approval, and;

WHEREAS, none of these actions calls into question the legitimate use either of life insurance products in charitable giving, or the use of commercial annuity products to re-insure charitable gift annuities,

Now therefore be it RESOLVED:

The NCPG supports legislative efforts to clarify the status of charitable split-dollar arrangements and supports the intent of H.R. 630 as introduced on February 9, 1999, which seeks to reiterate the denial of the charitable contribution deduction for transfers associated with split-dollar insurance arrangements.

EXHIBIT C - Charitable Reverse Split-dollar Year-By-Year

Year Charitable Cash Donation Unearned Premium Account Death Benefit Total Benefit Premium Payment Death Benefit
1 50,806 48,160 500,000 548,160 0 504,549
2 50,806 96,118 500,000 596,118 0 514,341
3 50,806 143,850 500,000 643,850 0 529,619
4 50,806 191,342 500,000 691,342 0 550,874
5 0 187,759 500,000 687,759 0 573,825
6 0 183,887 500,000 683,887 0 598,617
7 0 179,700 500,000 679,700 0 625,335
8 0 175,168 500,000 675,168 0 654,137
9 0 170,258 500,000 670,258 0 685,172
10 0 164,937 500,000 664,937 0 718,597
11 0 159,166 500,000 659,166 0 754,603
12 0 152,904 500,000 652,904 0 793,383
13 0 146,108 500,000 646,108 0 835,122
14 0 138,733 500,000 638,733 0 880,045
15 0 130,719 500,000 630,719 0 928,398
16 0 122,012 500,000 622,012 0 980,398
17 0 112,549 500,000 612,549 0 1,036,329
18 0 102,259 500,000 602,259 0 1,096,474
19 0 91,074 500,000 591,074 0 1,161,112
20 0 78,902 500,000 578,902 0 1,230,563
21 0 65,668 500,000 565,668 0 1,305,154
22 0 51,270 500,000 551,270 0 1,385,238
23 0 35,600 500,000 535,600 0 1,471,184
24 0 18,552 500,000 518,552 0 1,563,398
25 0 1 500,000 500,001 0 1,662,270
26 0 0 500,000 500,000 0 1,748,050
27 0 0 500,000 500,000 0 1,839,607
28 0 0 500,000 500,000 0 1,937,256
29 0 0 500,000 500,000 0 2,041,327
30 0 0 500,000 500,000 0 2,152,146
31 0 0 500,000 500,000 0 2,270,057
32 0 0 500,000 500,000 0 2,395,399
33 0 0 500,000 500,000 0 2,528,509
34 0 0 500,000 500,000 0 2,669,717
35 0 0 500,000 500,000 0 2,819,361
36 0 0 500,000 500,000 0 2,977,776
37 0 0 500,000 500,000 0 3,145,242

EXHIBIT D: Prudent Investor Rule

The Prudent Investor Rule has been adopted (or a version thereof) in each of the following states:

  • Alabama
  • Alaska
  • Arkansas
  • California
  • Colorad
  • Connecticut
  • Delaware
  • Florida
  • Georgia
  • Hawaii
  • Idah
  • Illinois
  • Indiana
  • Iowa
  • Kansas
  • Kentucky
  • Maine
  • Maryland
  • Massachusetts
  • Michigan
  • Minnesota
  • Mississippi
  • Missouri
  • Montana
  • Nebraska
  • New Hampshire
  • New Jersey
  • New Mexico
  • New York
  • North Carolina
  • North Dakota
  • Ohio
  • Oklahoma
  • Oregon
  • Pennsylvania
  • Rhode Island
  • South Carolina
  • South Dakota
  • Tennessee
  • Texas
  • Utah
  • Vermont
  • Virginia
  • Washington
  • West Virginia
  • Wisconsin
  • Wyoming

The above article was originally published as, "The Overselling of Charitable Reverse Split-Dollar Insurance" in the Journal of Taxation of Exempt Organizations, July/August 1998. Revisions have been made.

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