Posts Tagged ‘tax lawyers’

Income Taxation of Trusts — Not Just Special Needs Trusts

APRIL 6, 2015 VOLUME 22 NUMBER 13

We have previously explained the income taxation of self-settled special needs trusts and third-party special needs trusts. We focused on special needs trusts because, well, that’s what we do — and also because there seems to be so much confusion about special needs trusts. But that is not the only confusion out there. We find a lot of confusion about taxation of trusts, generally. Let’s see if we can clarify some of the issues.

The income tax issues are actually the same for trusts that are not “special needs” trusts. But the generalizations are a little harder to keep straight, since there is a much broader variety of trusts out in the world. So let’s see if we can lay out some questions and answers to help you understand the issues.

The first question: is the trust a “grantor” trust?

Why is this question the first (and probably the most important)? Because if the trust is a grantor trust it (a) does not need to have a separate taxpayer identification number (what is called an EIN, or Employer Identification Number, in tax language) and (b) should not file a separate tax return. If the trust is a grantor trust, you can (and usually should, if only for convenience purposes) use the grantor’s Social Security Number and report income on the grantor’s personal income tax return.

So how do you know if your trust is a grantor trust? Let’s ask a few qualifying questions:

  • Did you create the trust, or did the money in the trust once belong to you?
  • Is the trust revocable (by you)?
  • Are you the trustee?
  • Are you a beneficiary of the trust?

If you answer the first question “yes” and any one or more of the following questions “yes,” your trust is almost certainly a grantor trust. There are some exceptions, but they are relatively rare. Talk to your attorney and your tax preparer — and we recommend you talk with both. Why? There is a lot of misunderstanding out there, and neither lawyers nor accountants always get the answer right on this question.

What are the most common misunderstandings? You will sometimes hear accountants, bankers, stockbrokers and lawyers assure you that an irrevocable trust that names someone other than the grantor as trustee must have a separate EIN (and, presumably, file a separate tax return). That’s simply not true. It’s also not relevant to whether or not the trust is a grantor trust.

There are also some “magic” provisions in irrevocable trusts that are usually used precisely to make them grantor trusts. If, for instance, your irrevocable trust includes a provision that says the person who set it up retains the right to trade (“substitute”) property in the trust for their own property, it’s pretty likely that was included precisely to make sure the trust is a grantor trust.

What if the trust is not a grantor trust?

Then the trust will need an EIN, and it will file a separate income tax return. That does not necessarily mean it will pay any income tax, but it will need a return filed.

Depending on the language of the trust and the nature of its distributions, some or all (or, rarely, none) of its distributions will be taxed to the recipient — or to the person who benefited from the distribution. So, for instance, if a non-grantor trust sends cash to its beneficiary, the beneficiary will probably pay some income tax on the distribution. Same answer if, instead, the trust pays the beneficiary’s rent, college tuition and car payments directly — all of those distributions are for the benefit of the beneficiary.

Note that not all of the trust’s distributions will be treated as income to the beneficiary. Only the portion of the distributions that would have been taxed to the trust (that is, the trust’s income) will be subject to being passed through to the beneficiary. So, for instance, if a trust has $1,000 of interest income, and pays $15,000 in rent and tuition bills for the beneficiary, no more than that $1,000 figure will be taxable income to the beneficiary. At least some of the administrative costs will probably be deductible before calculating the tax effect.

How does the non-grantor trust report its income for tax purposes?

The federal tax form used by trusts is called the 1041 (it’s similar to, but different from, the individual’s 1040 income tax form). It actually looks a little simpler than the personal income tax return, but that’s misleading — some of the accounting and tax concepts are more complicated and less understood. We recommend that trustees get a professional to prepare the trust’s tax return.

What about state income tax returns?

The trustee will likely need to file state income tax returns that mirror the federal return. But for which state(s)? That’s a hard question to answer, and impossible to generalize about. Some states want trust income tax returns for any trust that has a trustee or co-trustee living in their state. Others look primarily to where any one beneficiary lives. Other states do not have income tax at all, and so do not require a trust to file an income tax return. Your professional tax preparer will want to consider at least: (a) the language of the trust, (b) the residence of all beneficiaries, and (c) the residence of all trustees.

Can any tax preparer handle a trust’s income tax return?

Yes. Probably. Maybe. Wait — let us ask you a question: have you asked the tax preparer how often he or she prepares trust income tax returns? If not, we suggest you might want to ask. The returns are not bewilderingly complicated, but they are unfamiliar to people — even professionals — who are not used to working with them. Your best bet: get a professional (probably a CPA, perhaps a lawyer or law firm) who does this kind of tax return on a regular basis.

Good luck getting through this tax season. We hope this helps. Be careful, though — there are exceptions and qualifications to the general rules we’ve outlined. Check with your experienced tax preparer or attorney before actually preparing returns. Better yet: let the professionals do it.

NAELA, NELF, CELA, ACTEC — What Does It All Mean?

APRIL 18, 2011 VOLUME 18 NUMBER 14

All you want to do is to find a lawyer to draft a simple will and powers of attorney. You ask your friends, but no one has a referral they feel unequivocally good about. A little online searching reveals that there are any number of organizations, credentials and qualifications–but how on earth do you figure out which lawyer actually knows something about estate planning, or Medicaid eligibility, or special needs trusts, guardianship and conservatorship (or whatever your elder law problem actually might be)? Let us give you a primer so you can identify the candidates.

NAELA (the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys) is probably the first place to look. Any lawyer in the country who does any significant amount of elder law (and that term is generally understood to include all the categories in the previous paragraph) probably belongs. There are about 5000 members, and the organization has been around for twenty years.

To belong to NAELA all you have to provide is proof that you are a lawyer and a $375 check each year. Even though the dues are not high, they serve as a low-level filter–those who sign up tend to actually work in the trenches of elder law. The organization has the best continuing legal education programs, the best camaraderie and the best sharing of any professional organization around.

There are actually several “flavors” of NAELA. Advanced elder law practitioners formed a subdivision of the organization two years ago; the Council of Advanced Practitioners (NAELA/CAP) is a highly selective group who meet separately once a year, exchange more sophisticated practice ideas and share much closer personal and professional connections.

Then there are the NAELA Fellows. Each year a small handful of NAELA members are selected to be Fellows, based on their reputations in the national and local communities, their hard work in the field, and their writing and speaking. The Fellows are the best-known, hardest-working elder law attorneys in the country–and there are fewer than 100 of them.

NAELA members who want to announce their availability for particular types of elder law work can sign up for the NAELA Experience Registry. Other than a certification that you are familiar with the area you sign up for, and payment of an annual fee, there is no requirement that you prove knowledge, experience or capability. Still, participation in the Experience Registry can be an indication of real interest in an area of elder law.

NELF (the National Elder Law Foundation) was an outgrowth of NAELA but is a separate entity. Its primary function is to operate an elder law certification program, and to grant successful applicants the CELA (Certified Elder Law Attorney) designation. CELAs must pass a full-day written exam (which has a famously low pass rate) and establish that they have real experience in the field.

ACTEC (the American College of Trust and Estate Counsel) is an entirely separate organization with some overlap but a significant difference. ACTEC Fellows (the name for all members) have to have been nominated by an existing Fellow; there is no application process and no way to sign up other than to get invited after a year-long vetting process. ACTEC Fellows tend to dress nicer, drink finer wines (not nearly as much beer) and belong to larger law firms than NAELA members.

There are, in addition, several for-profit organizations focused on estate planning and other elder law sub-specialties. Membership in any one of these may indicate that the lawyer takes the practice seriously, is trying to improve his or her skills through continuing education, and is committed enough to the practice to pay a (sometimes hefty) fee. Those organizations include the National Network of Estate Planning Attorneys (NNEPA), the American Academy of Estate Planning Attorneys (AAEPA), and Wealth Counsel. Each of those organizations has its staunch partisans; even a cursory look at their websites will illustrate that their primary focus is on their membership, rather than providing public information or referrals.

There are at least two national organizations for lawyers who practice in the special needs arena. One, the Special Needs Alliance, is a non-profit organization with an invitation-only membership structure. The other, the Academy of Special Needs Planners, is a membership group open to anyone who is interested enough in the field to pay its hefty membership fee.

In addition to all of that, your state bar association and/or Supreme Court may have created a legal specialty in estate planning, tax, elder law, or related fields–or in more than one of those. State specialization usually indicates a serious peer review process, a challenging written examination, and a higher requirement for continuing legal education to maintain the certification. Arizona, for example, provides certification for “Estate and Trust” lawyers as well as Tax practitioners, and also recognizes the CELA designation described above.

Should you demand that your new lawyer have one or more of the credentials described here? No, not necessarily–though you might ask further questions if he or she does not belong to any of these professional associations. The websites of each may give you some leads to locate experienced and competent practitioners in your area.

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