2011 and 2012 are good years not only for heirs but also for charities; high estate- and gift-tax exemption amounts (as much as $5 million per person) have many wealthy families exploring their options for gift-giving, and record-low interest rates are prompting many financial advisors to recommend that their clients set up charitable lead trusts to leave money to both their favorite charity and their heirs with little or no tax hit.

When setting up a charitable lead trust the grantor puts the desired assets into a trust for a specified number of years, naming a charitable foundation as the first beneficiary, and a non-charity (children or grandchildren) as the remainder beneficiary. Each year during the specified time period payments are made from the trust to the grantor’s designated charity, once the trust’s term expires, what is left goes to the grantor’s heirs.

Charitable lead trusts have fallen in and out of favor with financial advisors over the years, and were most recently popular after Ms. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis used one to great effect. This recent article in the New York Times describes the pros and cons of the charitable lead trust:

“Over the years, charitable lead trusts have been a way to give money to charity with the possible benefit of passing what was left to children without paying estate taxes.” Although the payout (to both beneficiaries) of a charitable lead trust is highly dependent on the starting interest rate, “the likelihood today that one of these trusts would have money left for heirs [is] 95 percent. The trusts are written so that the assets appreciate substantially over time, but even if they do not, the designated charity — often a family foundation — will still get the money.”

One of the downfalls of a charitable lead trust is that rules and regulations can be confusing, “they are hard for someone who is not a tax lawyer to understand.” Furthermore, some families have “used these trusts to give money to their family foundation. This runs the risk of being deemed self-dealing if the person who set up the trust names his foundation as the recipient and then parcels out the money himself.”

The bottom line is that while a charitable lead trust can be an incredible useful tool benefitting both your heirs and your favorite charity (especially if set up during the next year and a half), it is not something to be done lightly, without the advice and help of an experienced attorney or financial planner.