what is a Bypass Trust

What is a Bypass Trust?

A bypass trust, also known as a credit shelter trust, is an estate planning tool that allows an individual to pass assets to beneficiaries, typically their children, while granting a surviving spouse access to the trust’s income and, in some cases, the principal under certain conditions during their lifetime. 

This type of trust is designed to maximize estate tax exemptions by “bypassing” the surviving spouse’s estate, hence its name. Upon the first spouse’s death, assets up to the exemption limit are placed into the trust, with the remainder often transferring to the surviving spouse directly or into a marital trust. 

This strategy preserves the exemption for the first spouse’s estate, potentially saving on estate taxes when the second spouse passes away, while still providing for the surviving spouse’s financial needs.

The pros and cons of bypass trusts:

  • Estate Tax Savings: By taking advantage of estate tax exemptions, a bypass trust can save on estate taxes upon the death of the surviving spouse.
  • Asset Protection: Trust assets can be shielded from creditors and legal judgments against the beneficiaries, offering a degree of asset protection.
  • Control Over Distribution: The grantor can specify how the trust’s assets are distributed after the death of the surviving spouse, which can be especially beneficial in blended family situations.
  • Preservation of Exemption: A bypass trust preserves the estate tax exemption of the first spouse to die, which might otherwise be lost.
  • Income for Surviving Spouse: It provides the surviving spouse with access to income generated by the trust’s assets while keeping the principal intact for the next beneficiaries.


  • Complexity: Bypass trusts are complex legal instruments that require careful drafting and ongoing administration, often involving legal and accounting costs.
  • Inflexibility: Once the trust is established and the first spouse has passed, it’s generally not possible to alter the trust’s terms to account for changes in the surviving spouse’s needs or changes in tax laws.
  • Limited Access to Principal: The surviving spouse may have limited or no access to the principal, which could be problematic if their financial needs change.
  • Upfront Costs: The creation of a bypass trust can be more expensive than other estate planning options due to the complexity of the document and the need for professional assistance.
  • Potential for Over-Funding: If not carefully planned, the trust could be over-funded, which might lead to unnecessary capital gains or other taxes.

Is a bypass trusts right for you?


Determining whether a bypass trust is the right estate planning tool for you involves several considerations:

  • Estate Size: If your estate exceeds the federal or state estate tax exemption limits, a bypass trust can be a way to minimize estate taxes.

  • Marital Status: Bypass trusts are typically used by married couples, particularly where one spouse has a significantly larger estate.

  • Legacy Planning: If you wish to maintain control over asset distribution after your death, a bypass trust can ensure that your assets are used in ways that align with your wishes.

  • Surviving Spouse Needs: Consider whether the surviving spouse will require access to the trust principal or if income from the trust will suffice for their financial needs.

  • Asset Protection: If protecting your estate from potential future creditors of your beneficiaries (including your spouse) is important, a bypass trust offers a level of protection.

  • Long-Term Financial Security: A bypass trust can provide for a surviving spouse while also preserving assets for children or other beneficiaries.

  • Tax Law: Stay informed about current tax laws and exemptions, as changes could significantly impact the benefits of a bypass trust.

  • Professional Advice: It is essential to consult with an estate planning attorney and a tax advisor to fully understand the implications and benefits of a bypass trust in your specific situation.

  • Blended Families: If yours is a blended family, a bypass trust can help manage how your children and stepchildren inherit your assets.

  • Administrative Willingness: You should be willing to deal with the complexities and administrative duties of setting up and maintaining a trust.


What is a bypass trust?
A bypass trust is a type of trust that is created upon the death of an individual, allowing the individual’s estate to utilize both spouses’ estate tax exemptions, potentially saving on estate taxes and protecting assets for beneficiaries.

How does a bypass trust work?
When the first spouse dies, assets up to the exemption limit are placed into the bypass trust. The income generated can provide for the surviving spouse, with the principal often preserved for the ultimate beneficiaries.

Who should consider a bypass trust?
Couples with sizable estates that might be subject to significant estate taxes should consider a bypass trust as part of their estate planning.

What are the tax benefits of a bypass trust?
The main benefit is the savings on estate taxes by preserving the deceased spouse’s exemption amount and removing the trust’s assets from the surviving spouse’s taxable estate.

Can a bypass trust be changed?
Typically, once the first spouse dies and the bypass trust is funded, it becomes irrevocable and cannot be changed.

Does a bypass trust protect assets from creditors?
Yes, assets in a bypass trust are generally protected from the beneficiaries’ creditors, including the surviving spouse.

What happens to the bypass trust when the surviving spouse dies?
Upon the death of the surviving spouse, the assets in the bypass trust are distributed to the named beneficiaries, often the couple’s children, according to the terms set in the trust.

Can the surviving spouse access the principal in the bypass trust?
The surviving spouse’s access to the principal may be limited depending on the terms of the trust. It’s typically designed to provide income, with principal preserved for future beneficiaries.

Are there any downsides to creating a bypass trust?
The trust can be complex to set up and maintain, possibly resulting in higher costs. It may also have inflexibility issues, as it becomes irrevocable after the death of the first spouse.

How do state laws affect bypass trusts?
State laws can significantly influence how bypass trusts are treated, especially concerning estate tax exemptions and trusts’ recognition, which vary from state to state.


Contact Battlefront Legal

Christopher R. Harrison, Esq is a registered attorney in the state of Nevada who stands out as a highly creative trust attorney who is dedicated to tailoring a trust that perfectly aligns with your unique requirements. His approach to estate planning is both innovative and client-focused, ensuring that your trust is crafted to serve your needs effectively. 

If you’re looking to establish a trust that is as unique as your estate, reach out to Christopher Harrison. Call him today at (775) 539-0000 or click here to start the conversation about securing your legacy.