APRIL 16, 2012 VOLUME 19 NUMBER 15
Tax ID numbers for trusts. When we first wrote about this topic, we did not appreciate how interested our readers would be. We thought that the issue was sort of dry, actually, and that most people would have asked their lawyer or their accountant for direction. It has become one of the most enduringly popular topics at the Fleming & Curti, PLC, website.
Imagine our surprise. The questions just keep coming. We can’t and don’t try to answer them all individually — we are not here to give free legal advice based on incomplete information, and most of the questions leave out at least some of the detail we would need. But we do find your questions instructive for purposes of figuring out the level of interest — and confusion — out there.
Here are a few of the questions we have gotten (edited for space, or to focus the question on the area we want to answer). Please, please, please remember that we are not trying to give specific legal advice here — we only want to help you focus your questions for when you talk with your own lawyer, or when you find yourself arguing with the well-meaning but misinformed support person at a major mutual fund company.
The key to determining when a trust needs its own EIN (employer identification number — the correct term for a taxpayer identification number for a non-human entity) is whether or not the trust is a “grantor” trust. While your parents were both living the trust was probably revocable and for their joint benefit; it almost certainly could use one or the other parent’s Social Security Number as its TIN. With the death of your father, the question now is whether the trust (a) is still revocable and (b) contains money that was originally your mother’s.
For purposes of determining the trust’s revocability, we can ignore the fact that your mother may not be mentally able to revoke the trust. The test is whether she would have the legal authority to do so, were she competent to attempt it.
More importantly, if the trust consisted of your father’s property (and not joint or community property), then it may not be a grantor trust any longer. In that case it may need its own EIN.
Whether or not it needs to have its own EIN, it is permissible for you to get one. This is true because your mother is no longer the trustee. Many banks and brokerage houses think that the fact that she is not trustee makes a separate EIN mandatory; they are wrong. But there is no harm in getting one, and it might make it easier to deal with the financial industry. What the tax returns would look like in such a case is a separate question — one you probably ought to pose to the accountant who prepares the trust’s and your mother’s tax returns.
The most common scenario is this: husband and wife have either a joint revocable trust or reciprocal trusts. In either case, upon the death of the first spouse a separate trust is created for the benefit of the surviving spouse. This trust is irrevocable and contains assets that belonged originally to the now-deceased spouse. As we have described before, this new trust (it might be more accurate to call it a modification of the old trust, which is now irrevocable) needs its own EIN. But what is it called?
The trust document itself might give the answer. Mr. and Mrs. Jones’ trust might say something like “the share described herein shall be set aside into the Jones Family Trust Marital Sub-Trust” or “the Jones Family Decedent’s Trust.” If the document names the new (or sub-) trust, use that name. If not, we usually use language that makes clear — and helps us remember — what kind of trust it is. Perhaps “the Jones Family Trust — Decedent’s Share” is clear enough.
There is no particular magic to the language. Clarity is the key. There are no trust policemen waiting to arrest you for getting the name wrong, and sometimes it is easier to let the broker or banker win these arguments — even when they are wrong. But if you are trustee it IS important that you keep track of which funds belong to which sub-trust if there is more than one, and that you not commingle the money between trusts or, worse yet, with your own money.
I have my own revocable living trust, and I know it does not need a new EIN — it uses my Social Security Number. But I’m getting claim forms from the annuity company after my mother’s death, and they want me to have a trust EIN. The form lists the EIN in the xx-xxxxxxx format rather than xxx-xx-xxxx. Can I just put my Social Security Number in that odd format?
Yes, that is what we would do. It likely will work — not so much because there is a clearly right answer, but because there is no easy way for the annuity company to double-check. Their form is wrong to assume that all trusts have an EIN, and you are not even permitted to get an EIN for your revocable trust when you are the trustee and the original owner of all its assets. We encourage you to put your Social Security Number in the xx-xxxxxxx format and see if it works. We have done that before and it has.
She certainly will when you die. Until then, the trust doesn’t really exist, so there’s nothing to apply for now.
This suggests a question not really asked: what happens when you die with a will creating a trust? The first part of the answer: we will need to probate your estate. If your intention was to avoid probate by creating a trust, putting it in your will does not accomplish that. We see much confusion about this point among our clients and audiences when we give public presentations. Sometimes they then say something like: “ah, but we took care of that problem — we named our son as POD beneficiary” (or, sometimes, as joint tenant with right of survivorship). Great — no probate. Also — no trust. If you want your son’s money to pass in trust AND to avoid probate, you will need to talk about creating a living trust, not a testamentary trust. But that’s a lecture for another day.
Those were fun questions, but we’re out of time and space for this week’s newsletter installment. But keep sending them in — your questions help us decide where to focus our future articles. Please remember, however, that we are not here to give specific legal advice — we look for questions that raise larger questions that help us explain legal concepts for a lay audience. We hope we have helped you understand exactly why you need a lawyer for your more specific legal question.