Heckerling Conference 2024: Exploring Foreign Trusts – What You Don’t Know Can Hurt You


By: HeirSearch

The HeirSearch team launched into 2024 by participating in the esteemed Heckerling Institute on Estate Planning, held in Orlando, Florida, from January 8th to 12th. Renowned as a key annual event for networking and education among estate planning professionals, this year’s conference did not disappoint. Our team gleaned crucial insights to enhance their practice and relished the opportunity to engage with fellow professionals and leading industry experts.

In this blog, we are excited to share knowledge from one of the conference’s standout sessions by Michelle B. Graham, a Partner at Withers Worldwide. Her presentation, “Foreign Trusts – What You Don’t Know Can Hurt You,” provided a deep dive into the intricacies of handling foreign trusts for estate planning professionals.

Due to differing laws across jurisdictions, foreign trusts present unique challenges in estate planning. This article distills essential points from Michelle’s insightful session.

Foreign Trusts Demand Careful Consideration

While foreign trusts can offer attractive asset protection, reduced taxation, and heightened litigation costs for American creditors pursuing claims internationally, they also come with various considerations. Estate planning professionals should always evaluate the following on a client-by-client basis:

  • The location of the client’s assets and whether they are held overseas.
  • The comparative benefits of establishing a trust in a foreign jurisdiction versus the U.S., considering the client’s specific estate planning goals.
  • The broader complexities associated with foreign trusts, such as different legal systems and how these align with the client’s estate objectives (more on this below).

Why What You—and Your Client—Don’t Know About Foreign Trusts Can Hurt You

When guiding clients through the decision-making process of setting up or managing foreign trusts, several key factors demand attention:

  • Local Legal Framework: Understanding the legal framework in the jurisdiction where the trust is established is crucial. Trust laws vary significantly from country to country, affecting everything from taxation to beneficiary rights.
  • Succession and Inheritance Laws: Some jurisdictions have strict succession or forced heirship laws that may conflict with the client’s intentions. Determining if these laws limit the flexibility to name beneficiaries or dictate how assets are distributed is important.
  • Local Professional Consultation: Working with local legal experts where the trust assets are located is recommended. They can provide valuable insights into local estate and trust laws, ensuring the trust structure is compliant and effective.
  • Tax Implications: Foreign trusts can have significant tax implications both in the jurisdiction where they are established and in the client’s home country. Understanding and planning for these implications is vital to avoid unintended tax liabilities.
  • Reporting Obligations: Clients must be aware of any reporting obligations in their home country arising from owning foreign trusts. Failure to comply with these reporting requirements can incur harsh penalties.
  • Asset Protection and Privacy Concerns: While foreign trusts may offer enhanced asset protection and privacy, balancing these benefits against the potential complexities and costs is essential.
  • Cultural and Language Barriers: Navigating a foreign trust can also involve dealing with language barriers and cultural differences in business and legal practices. Being prepared to address these challenges is essential for effective trust management.

How Foreign Trusts Impact Estate Planning

Navigating the landscape of foreign trusts is a vital aspect of estate planning for U.S. professionals advising clients with global interests. The critical areas of impact include:

  • Taxation and Reporting Requirements: U.S. owners and beneficiaries of foreign trusts encounter stringent and intricate taxation and reporting requirements. These obligations differ markedly from those associated with domestic U.S. trusts.
  • Classification and Structure of Trusts: The way a foreign trust is classified (whether as grantor or non-grantor) significantly influences its tax implications in the U.S. Understanding the specific structure of a foreign trust is essential for accurate tax planning and reporting.
  • Beneficiary Considerations: The status of beneficiaries, whether U.S. citizens, residents, or non-residents, is crucial in determining the tax obligations arising from a foreign trust.
  • Compliance with FATCA and FBAR: The Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA) and Foreign Bank and Financial Accounts Report (FBAR) impose additional reporting requirements for foreign financial assets and accounts. Failure to comply can result in severe penalties, making it imperative for estate planners to ensure that clients holding foreign trusts adhere to these regulations.
  • Estate and Gift Tax Implications: The transfer of assets into and distributions from foreign trusts can have significant estate and gift tax implications. Estate planning professionals must navigate these implications to optimize estate and gift tax liabilities for their clients.
  • Jurisdictional Challenges: As noted, jurisdictions have varying trust laws, which can impact the governance, administration, and distribution of trust assets. Estate planners must be mindful of these laws to manage and advise on foreign trusts effectively.

Foreign trusts add layers of complexity to estate planning. Estate planning professionals must be equipped with up-to-date knowledge and strategies to address these challenges.

HeirSearch Helps Estate Planning and Trust Professionals by Identifying and Locating Unknown Heirs and Beneficiaries

By highlighting the key takeaways from Michelle Graham’s insightful talk at the Heckerling Conference, we hope to have enriched your understanding of foreign trusts and their implications for your clients.

In navigating the complexities of estate administration, especially when dealing with foreign trusts and locating, identifying, and proving trust beneficiaries, HeirSearch emerges as a vital resource for estate planning professionals. Our expertise in forensic genealogy, honed since 1967, has earned us a notable 97% success rate in identifying heirs and beneficiaries, which is crucial in the process of trust termination.

We provide our clients with a clear, upfront fee schedule, avoiding some of the risks of independent research or contingent fees. This commitment to best practices ensures that the information we provide is accurate and aligns with the highest professional standards, offering estate and trust professionals the assurance they need.

For estate and trust professionals grappling with the challenges of beneficiary identification in the context of foreign trusts, HeirSearch offers a reliable, experienced hand to guide you through this intricate process.

Connect with us for support in navigating these challenges or to address any questions about our services.

Phone: +1 (800)-663-2255

Or Contact Us Today


This report is for informational purposes only and is intended only as a reference. HeirSearch does not endorse or recommend any of the products or services offered in the third-party articles or content contained within. We cannot guarantee the accuracy or effectiveness of the same and will not assume any liability related to the same. Additionally, nothing contained herein may be construed as legal advice. All offers are void where prohibited by law. Copyright © International Genealogical Search Inc. All rights reserved.