Since trust income tax rates are generally higher than the beneficiaries’ income tax rates, it is often beneficial to have the income taxed to the beneficiaries rather than the trust. Unique to trust income tax returns (IRS Form 1041), the concepts of fiduciary accounting income distributable net income affect who is liable for the tax. Typically, a trust must distribute income to beneficiaries in order for it to be taxed at their (usually lower) rates. However, a special provision in the trust income tax law allows the fiduciary to elect to treat some or all of the distributions made in the first 65 days of the following tax year as if they were made in the preceding tax year. So if there were not enough distributions in 2009 to cause all of the estate or trust income to be taxed to the beneficiaries, fiduciaries should consider making this tax election. These are the trust income tax rules applicable to trusts taxed as “complex trusts” and also generally apply to a decedent’s estate income tax return, which is made on the same IRS Form 1041, but do not apply to what is considered a “simple trust” under tax law.
As in much of the tax law, there is some gray area that allows for planning / wiggle room. The pertinent trust income tax return law uses the term “properly paid or credited”. The trust income tax return regulations are unclear as to what “properly credited” means and the Tax Court has allowed distributions that were made after the 65-day period where they were shown to be “credited”. Nonetheless, the prudent action is actually pay the distributions within the first 65 days of the estate or trust’s tax year.
Although the foregoing applies equally to California trust income tax returns, the structure of the tax rates applicable to California trust income tax returns differs such that the issue is usually mute.