Facebook, Instagram and the Zuckerberg Estate Plan

 by David Kovsky

Forbes Magazine ran an article on March 7, 2012, explaining how Mark Zuckerberg transferred approximately $37 million, tax free, to unknown beneficiaries.  The author of the article speculates that the ultimate beneficiaries are Mr. Zuckerberg’s unborn children.  When this article ran, it generated a fair amount of buzz in the estate planning world.  Now, with the lightning quick acquisition of Instagram for a cool $1 billion barely in the rearview mirror, it is worth resuscitating the discussion of estate planning for young entrepreneurs.

In Mr. Zuckerberg’s case, the article points to his use of a specific type of a trust known as a Grantor Retained Annuity Trust.  Without getting into the mechanical details of this type of planning, the ultimate goal was to transfer the growth and appreciation in value of Facebook stock to the trust beneficiaries (assumed to be Generation 2), free of any wealth transfer tax, while retaining the original value in Mr. Zuckerberg’s estate.  The tremendous growth in value of Facebook over a short period of time made this an excellent vehicle for Mr. Zuckerberg.  Likewise, with historically low IRS interest rates (a Grantor Retained Annuity Trust must pay an interest factor to the Grantor), this is a great tool for more modest clients who expect a sale or strong appreciation within a defined period of years.

For young entrepreneurs who may not see an exit or rapid growth on the horizon, there are other techniques that should be considered.  To keep the planning straightforward, some of these clients may benefit from simply gifting a slice of their company to an irrevocable trust (it is important to not “over plan” young clients, so using a small but meaningful portion of a client’s business is advisable).  The trust assets may be held for the benefit of the client’s children.  If the client is married, his or her spouse may be a permissible beneficiary.  Of course, each dollar that is distributed back to the spouse is counterproductive from an estate planning perspective, but it gives the client the flexibility of having an “out valve” in the event the assets are needed at his or her generation.  This planning is especially important for young entrepreneurs whose financial wherewithal is much less certain than that of an elderly client.

For gift tax reporting purposes, the client’s company must be appraised to establish the value of the gift.  The general concept here is to leverage the low (or nominal) value of a client’s startup and allow all of the growth and appreciation to blossom outside of his or her estate.  Since the client will likely assert only a nominal value for the company on his or her gift tax return (and thus utilize very little of his or her gift exemption), pursuing this strategy in 2012 is advantageous.  If the IRS audits the gift tax return and asserts a higher value for the company (even substantially higher), the $5.12 million exemption for 2012 will serve as a cushion protecting the client from a potential gift tax liability.

Startups like Instagram and Facebook were unmitigated homeruns.  While few clients will have Facebook’s level of success, this type of trust and gift planning is a very effective early-stage estate planning strategy for entrepreneurs, with the potential to pay huge dividends in the long run.  If the company does modestly well, the client may save future wealth transfer taxes (at multiple generations).  Moreover, trusts for the ultimate benefit of Generation 2 and Generation 3 may be protected from creditors and divorcing spouses.  As a client begins to have a track record of success, the trust may also be used to facilitate angel investing in other startups (a common side project for many successful young entrepreneurs).  Alternatively, if the company goes belly-up, the client has incurred the legal expense of establishing the trust, but will have a vehicle in place to receive gifts of interests in future companies.

It’s often very difficult to get young clients to focus on estate planning.  At age 24 when the trusts were established, Mr. Zuckerberg should be commended for focusing on estate planning and having the wit to heed the advice of his counsel.

Explore posts in the same categories: Estate Planning, Gift Taxes, Tax, Trusts

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2 Comments on “Facebook, Instagram and the Zuckerberg Estate Plan”


  1. […] a “qualified” interest.  One such qualified interest is an annuity (hence the common usage of grantor retained annuity trusts).  Since DOMA does not recognize a marriage between same-sex couples, the limitation to qualified […]


  2. Excellent strategy implemented by Mr. Zuckerberg. Indeed it is important to do proper estate planning.


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