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Man standing on a large letters that spell "TAX"Trusts pay taxes. A trust is a legal entity that holds money and assets for future distribution or management. For example, you might create a trust for your children’s college education, putting money into it which they can withdraw when they go to school. Or you might put the family home into a trust, creating a legal entity that will own the property potentially indefinitely to ensure that it will always stay in the family. The intersection of trusts and taxes can be complicated, but working with a financial advisor will clarify relevant issues so you can make good decisions.

There are three main kinds of trusts.

  • Simple Trust – A simple trust is, as its name suggests, the most basic and the most common. It holds assets and distributes all of the income that it makes off those assets to the trust’s beneficiaries. It does not distribute any of its principal.
  • Complex Trust – A complex trust is generally defined as “not a simple trust.” A trust is generally considered complex if it distributes less than all of its earned income in a year; if it distributes any of its principal; or if it makes distributions to charities as well as named beneficiaries.
  • Grantor Trust – A grantor trust is managed by the individual who established the trust. They exert a potentially high degree of control over the trust’s assets depending on how the trust was established.

With a grantor trust, the individual who established the trust pays all related taxes on the trust’s funds. Simple and complex trusts, however, have to directly pay taxes on all income, assets and tax events.

Trusts pay federal, state and (when applicable) local taxes. However, this article will only address federal tax rates and exemptions, as the specific rates and regulations surrounding state trust taxation is beyond the scope of this article.

2021 Ordinary Income Trust Tax Rates

In 2021 the federal government taxes trust income at four levels:

  • 10%: $0 – $2,650
  • 24%: $2,651 – $9,550
  • 35%: $9,551 – $13,050
  • 37%: $13,051 and higher

These tax levels also apply to all income generated by estates.

The standard rules apply to these four tax brackets. So, for example, if a trust earns $10,000 in income during 2021 it would pay the following taxes:

  • 10% of $2,650 (all earnings between $0 – $2,650) = $265
  • 24% of $6,900 (all earnings between $2,651 – $9,550) = $1,656
  • 35% of $450 (all earnings between $9,551 – $10,000) = $157
  • Total Taxes = $2,078

2021 Long-Term Capital Gains Trust Tax Rates

Tax documentsShort-term capital gains (from assets held 12 months or less) and non-qualified dividends are taxed as ordinary income. Qualified dividends and capital gains on assets held for more than 12 months are taxed at a lower rate called the long-term capital gains rate. For trusts in 2021 there are three long-term capital gains brackets:

  • 0%: $0 – $2,700
  • 15%: $2,701 – $13,250
  • 20: $13,251 and higher

Once again, these tax brackets also apply to all income generated by estates.

Most trusts generate a majority of their income through investments, but this is not a hard and fast rule. Many manage assets such as buildings and property, for example. Any income generated by rents or rental fees from these assets would be classified as ordinary income, not capital gains.

Primary Deductions

Here are four categories of primary deductions that concern trusts.

Contributions and Gifts

The contributions made into a trust are generally not subject to income taxes. The person making this contribution has already paid taxes on the money, so the IRS considers this double taxation. By and large the trust only pays taxes on income it generates from money and assets it holds.

The beneficiary of a trust may have to pay taxes on money that he or she receives. Generally speaking, beneficiaries must pay taxes on any distributions they receive that the trust paid from income that it earned in the current tax year. A beneficiary does not have to pay taxes on any distributions that the trust makes from its principal balance. This is to avoid double taxation. Any money in the trust’s principal has already been taxed. Any money that the trust earns and distributes in the same year, it does not pay taxes on.

When both could apply, distributions from a trust are considered to be first from the current year’s income (and so the beneficiary has to pay taxes on that money) and then from the principal. However, in some cases a beneficiary can still avoid paying any taxes if he or she has received less from the trust than lifetime gift tax exemption. In 2021, that is set at $11.7 million.

Trustee and Tax Preparation Fees

The trust may deduct reasonable fees for trustee management and tax preparation. However, the trust may only deduct these fees based on the proportion of income that is taxable. For example, say that a trust received $20,000 worth of income in a given year. However, only $10,000 of that income was subject to taxes. The trust could then deduct half of its management and accounting fees.

Charitable Donations

A trust may typically deduct any cash donations made to charity. Since this is a deduction it is nonrefundable, meaning that a trust cannot deduct more in donations than it earned in taxable income.

Income Distribution Deduction

Man preparing his tax returnsTrusts which make distributions to beneficiaries can separate their income into two segments for tax purposes: the income which the trust keeps for itself, and the income which the trust distributes. The portion of the trust’s income which it distributes is known as the distributable net income, or DNI. Trusts do not have to pay taxes on the portion of their income which they distribute to beneficiaries in the same calendar year as it was earned. (This is because beneficiaries pay taxes on this income.) Any income that the trust does not distribute in the same year that it is earned is taxed and then added to the trust’s principal.

The DNI is calculated as the trust’s total taxable income, less its capital gains, plus any applicable tax exemption. So:

DNI = Total Taxable Income – Total Capital Gains + Applicable Exemptions

Remember, total capital gains is the sum total of all capital gains offset by any capital losses. A trust can then deduct from its income taxes the amount of any distributions it makes to qualified beneficiaries up to the total DNI.

The Bottom Line

Trusts pay taxes on ordinary income and long-term capital gains. While their rates have changed slightly in 2021, they remain largely comparable to previous years.

Tips on Taxes

  • Don’t be fooled: Trusts aren’t just for the rich and famous. They are something many others should explore. It’s best to do that exploration with a financial advisor. Finding a qualified financial advisor doesn’t have to be hard. SmartAsset’s free tool matches you with up to three financial advisors in your area, and you can interview your advisor matches at no cost to decide which one is right for you. If you’re ready to find an advisor who can help you achieve your financial goals, get started now.
  • Use our free income tax calculator to quickly get a good estimate of what you’ll owe the federal government.

Photo credit: ©iStock.com/blackred, ©iStock.com/designer491, ©iStock.com/Ridofranz

Eric Reed Eric Reed is a freelance journalist who specializes in economics, policy and global issues, with substantial coverage of finance and personal finance. He has contributed to outlets including The Street, CNBC, Glassdoor and Consumer Reports. Eric’s work focuses on the human impact of abstract issues, emphasizing analytical journalism that helps readers more fully understand their world and their money. He has reported from more than a dozen countries, with datelines that include Sao Paolo, Brazil; Phnom Penh, Cambodia; and Athens, Greece. A former attorney, before becoming a journalist Eric worked in securities litigation and white collar criminal defense with a pro bono specialty in human trafficking issues. He graduated from the University of Michigan Law School and can be found any given Saturday in the fall cheering on his Wolverines.
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