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CRUTs were more common in the 1990s when capital gains rates were higher. In 1996, when Romney set up his trust in Massachusetts, the federal rate was 28 percent, compared with 15 percent today. At the time, a Massachusetts state resident who sold shares for a gain of $1 million could have faced a combined state and federal capital gains tax of as much as 40 percent, reducing his take to $600,000.
By contrast, if he contributed the stock to a CRUT, and it sold the shares, it typically wouldn’t owe any tax since it is a charitable trust. The CRUT could reinvest the $1 million and earn a return on the full amount.
"The power of this is the tax deferral," said Jay A. Friedman, a partner at accounting firm Perelson Weiner LLP in New York. "The money is all growing tax free and he only pays tax on what is distributed to him."
Concerned that CRUTS weren’t sufficiently philanthropic, Congress mandated in July 1997 that the present value of what was projected to be left for charity must equal at least 10 percent of the initial contribution. Existing CRUTS weren’t affected by the new law.
Romney’s trust was projected to leave to charity an amount with a present value of a little less than 8 percent of the initial contribution, according to an analysis by Friedman. Thus, the specifics of Romney’s trust wouldn’t have passed legal muster if it had been set up 13 months later, he said.
Because the trust’s investments have been earning a return far below its annual payouts to the Romneys, its principal has dwindled rapidly.
In 2001, five years after it was established, the trust had a value of between $750,000 and $1.25 million. Since then, it has pursued a conservative investment strategy — regardless of the ups and downs of the stock market — buying a mix of money-market funds, federally-backed bonds and federal bond funds. Since 2007, it has moved its assets entirely into cash. By 2011, its investments earned a return of $48, down from between $60,001 and $100,000 in 2001. It paid $36,696 to the Romneys in 2011.
The current investing strategy favors the Romneys over the charity because they get a guaranteed payout, said Michael Arlein, a trusts and estates lawyer at Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler LLP.
"The Romneys get theirs off the top and the charity gets what’s left," he said. "So by definition, if it’s not performing as well, the charity gets harmed more."
The trustee for Romney’s CRUT is R. Bradford Malt, chairman of the law firm Ropes & Gray LLP, and manager for Romney’s various family trusts as well as his personal attorney. Ropes & Gray has also been for years the main outside counsel for Bain Capital.
If the CRUT maintains the same investing strategy, assets will continue to shrink, said Jerome M. Hesch, a tax and estate planning attorney at the law firm Carlton Fields. The trustee acted prudently in protecting against losses during a stock market decline, he said.
Nevertheless, "what’s going to go to charity is probably close to nothing," Hesch said.
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