This blog was written by Lara Besharat
Benjamin Franklin famously wrote that “in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” A hundred and seventy-eight years later, the Alcor Life Extension Foundation undertook to disprove this generally accepted inevitability.
In 1967, James Bedford became the first person to be cryonically preserved after death in the hopes of someday being brought back to life. For up to $200,000 (not including the annual cryonics facility membership fee), an individual can opt to have their corpse or severed head cryopreserved—that is, have their body or head lowered to a freezing temperature of about −196 °C, typically via immersion in liquid nitrogen, and then stored in a tank, until, theoretically, it can be thawed and revived.
Whether cheating death in this manner is even a viable (or, frankly, desirable) possibility remains to be seen. Nevertheless, enough people have deemed the minor possibility of success sufficient to commit their bodies (and cash) to it, and, therefore, mechanisms have been put in place to address (at least some of) the issues that could arise. One such mechanism is an estate planning service known as a revival trust. A revival trust, personal revival trust, or future income trust is created by the cryopreserved individual to access upon their return to life. Prior to their death, they arrange for some or all of their assets to be placed in a trust, and then designate themselves as beneficiary. This is done to ensure that when—if—they are revived, they have income to live on.
As you can imagine, this as-of-yet totally untested service already has a host of possible problems attached to it. For one thing, it could easily lead to some sort of costly and emotionally draining legal dispute with the testator’s estate beneficiaries, and any other person who felt deserving of an inheritance. By setting aside assets in a revival trust, the testator diminishes the quantity of their estate gifted to others. A disgruntled relative could easily perceive this as the trust robbing them of their due—and all for something that may be nothing but an “abjectly false hope that is beyond the promise of technology” (Hendricks, MIT Technology Review). While it is ultimately the testator’s decision, anger and frustration could lead to, at best, an aggravating argument, and at worst, a long, costly, and stressful legal dispute.
Another issue with revival trusts is that there are inescapable complications with naming a trustee. You can’t choose an individual because it is extremely unlikely that anyone alive today will still be alive by the time reanimation has become a possibility. Choosing a Trust Company is potentially unreliable as well, as there is no way of knowing how long it will take for technology and science to reach the point of revival, and therefore the company may no longer exist by the time it is needed. There is just no way of knowing what will and will not still be in existence by the time the testator is brought back to life, and the consequences of this inevitably extend even further than the trustee selection process.
Entire governments and legal systems could be different by the time revival is possible—and if governments and legal systems have changed, so too will the system of taxation. How could such a person be taxed? Would they be taxed as they once were, or would they be considered a new taxpayer? Could they be subjected to a sort of double tax, where they would have to pay twice on the same income—first at preservation, then later at revival? There’s no way of knowing, and no way to plan.
Moreover, once brought back to life, the trust’s testator may not even be considered the same person they were before the big freeze. Before the preservation process can even start, the testator must be declared legally dead, and thus ceases to exist as a living person. If they were to then come back to life sometime far in the future, they may no longer be considered the same person they once were, but an entirely new person. A hundred, five hundred, a thousand years into the future, the way an individual is identified could be completely different, and with that would come a multitude of challenges, including the fact that if you are no longer the same person, then you are no longer the trust’s testator, but just a beneficiary, severely limiting your power over your own estate plan.
Ultimately, whether a revival trust is of any value is not currently known, and, in fact, may never be known. One thing is for certain, however—between unhappy beneficiaries, a host of tax implications, and the inability to make even the most basic, practical decisions (i.e. choosing a trustee), putting your faith in a concept that is but a black hole of potential problems with a $200,000 price tag is probably not worth the risk of eventually being treated like a freezer burned chicken parm, 200 years past its expiration date.