Taxation of Family Trusts

by Jane Meggitt ; Updated March 15, 2018
Family trusts involve many layers of potential taxation.

Several types of trusts exist, created primarily for estate planning, retaining assets for beneficiaries and other specific purposes. Family trusts are designed for the benefit of members of the same family. Simple family trusts distribute all income to beneficiaries annually or more often. Complex family trusts do not distribute all income. Any trust generating more than $600 in income annually must report this income to the IRS. States may also tax family trusts, but taxation depends on the laws of a particular state.

Revocable Living Trusts

Many family trusts are revocable living trusts, also known as inter vivos trusts. Such trusts are established by a grantor who places property in the trust, controls the assets, and may buy and sell them as long as he or she is alive. The grantor is often the trustee, the person appointed to manage the trust. The grantor is considered the owner of the trust by the IRS, reports income on their tax return, and is taxed according to their income tax bracket. Often, the only beneficiary of a revocable living trust is the grantor, but upon their death, the trust becomes irrevocable, and assets in the trust are distributed to designated beneficiaries. Revocable living trusts avoid probate and afford the family privacy when it comes to the matter of estate distribution. For the most part, revocable living trusts do not save on either income or estate taxes.

Non-Grantor Trusts

Other family trusts are non-grantor trusts, in which the grantor is not a beneficiary or trustee. A non-grantor trust must obtain a taxpayer identification number for IRS purposes.

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Form 1041, U.S. Income Tax Return for Estates and Trusts

Income, gains, losses and deductions for non-grantor family trusts are reported on Form 1041, the U.S. Income Tax Return for Estates and Trusts. The same form is also used to report income distributed to beneficiaries or held for future beneficiary distribution. Any income tax liability incurred by the trust is included on this form as well as employment tax for wages paid to household employees.

If the income was distributed to the beneficiaries, then those individuals must pay the actual tax. Each beneficiary receives a Schedule K-1 from the trust showing the distributions, which they report to the IRS on their individual income tax returns. The trust, in turn, can deduct such distributions. If the trust retained income, then it must pay the taxes.

There is a caveat. Income from a trust is taxable, but distributions from the trust’s principal are not. The IRS assumes that assets placed into the trust were already taxed. The Schedule K-1 will delineate for the beneficiary what part of their distribution was income and what was principal.

Trust Tax Rates

Unlike individual tax returns, there is no standard deduction for non-grantor trusts, but they do get a deduction for distributions to beneficiaries. For 2017, trusts pay the same income tax rates as individuals, except there is no 10 percent low rate. The highest trust tax rate, 39.6 percent, starts when the trust earns just $12,500 in income.

IRS Warning About Trusts and Tax Evasion Schemes

If you were thinking about creating a family trust so that you or your heirs may end up not paying taxes, think again. The IRS is well aware of those promoting family trusts as a way to evade taxes, and it looks out for such schemes. Non-grantor trusts, especially, are used for such illicit purposes. The IRS opens its explanation of non-grantor trust taxation with the words “If the trust is not a sham,” so seek professional help if you plan to establish a trust.

About the Author

Jane Meggitt has been a writer for more than 20 years. In addition to reporting for a major newspaper chain, she has been published in "Horse News," "Suburban Classic," "Hoof Beats," "Equine Journal" and other publications. She has a Bachelor of Arts in English from New York University and an Associate of Arts from the American Academy of Dramatics Arts, New York City.

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