My Spouse Passed Away Years Ago – I Should be Filing Tax Returns for a Trust?

Originally published in the Pacific Grove Hometown Bulletin

November 2, 2011

There is a widespread misunderstanding that if you and your spouse had set up a living trust, nothing needs to be done when the first spouse passes away except remove the deceased spouse’s name from bank accounts and real estate deeds.  If you were under this impression, you may be leaving a big headache for your heirs and subjecting half of your estate to 35 or 55 percent inheritance tax, unnecessarily.  I am sure your heirs would be quite upset to learn you inadvertently “adopted” Uncle Sam, and are making the federal government one of the largest beneficiaries of your estate!

Most trust documents in California set up for married couples have a traditional “A-B” trust formula.  Due to community property laws, typically half the assets belong to each spouse no matter who earned them or whose name is on the account or deed.  Assuming the husband passes away first, the wife’s half goes to the A trust for her to do as she pleases, and she reports all income related to these assets on her personal 1040/540 tax returns.  The husband’s half goes to the B trust.  The husband typically gives his wife the right to use the income generated by the assets in his B trust, and if she does not have enough income from her other assets, she can dip into its principal for her health, education, or maintenance.

The B trust is special because the wife generally has limited control over where those assets go when she passes away.  The husband typically determines this in the trust document – after all, it was his half.  As a result of her limited control, she is not considered the owner of the B Trust assets and they are not included in her taxable estate when she passes away!  Starting in 2013, the estate tax exemption reverts back to a measly $1 million; in California, that might be the value of the family home!  In order to get this special tax-exempt treatment, the B trust needs to be “funded” (assets properly divided and retitled to new accounts), and you have to file 1041/541 tax returns for it each year thereafter.

Estate taxes aside, the other significant reason to properly set up the B trust and file returns is “remainder beneficiaries.”  These are the people or organizations the husband said would receive the remaining assets in the B trust upon the wife’s passing.  Any of these beneficiaries could sue her if she does not segregate the assets and properly follow the terms of the B trust.  This is often important if there are children from two marriages, or the deceased spouse wanted to make sure mom did not remarry and give all the money to the new spouse instead of his own children.

A final reason is that the IRS can care as well.  Most people that fail to fund and file returns for the B trust, treat all the assets as their own, and report all the income on their personal tax returns.  The overall tax is never exactly the same compared to filing 1041s even if income is supposed to go to the surviving spouse.  Another problem is that capital gains typically do not go to the surviving spouse and are taxed to the trust (although at similar rates).  A hard line auditor could say, “Yes, you paid tax, but the trust did not.”

If you failed to fund your B trust, confront the issue by seeking competent professional advice so you can determine if you need to do something and what your options are.  If there is a potential impact, it will surely resurface in your estate.  If it is not addressed before you pass, it will either get more complicated/expensive to handle or create an irreversible consequence.

In the next article I will expand on this by discussing the tax aspects of “stale” trust funding.  Prior articles are republished on my website at www.tlongcpa.com/blog.

IRS Circular 230 Notice: To the extent this article concerns tax matters, it is not intended to be used and cannot be used by a taxpayer for the purpose of avoiding penalties that may be imposed by law.

Travis H. Long, CPA is located at 706-B Forest Avenue, PG, 93950 and focuses on trust, estate, individual, and business taxation. He can be reached at 831-333-1041.

Advertisements

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: