No capital gain exclusion for residence held in trust

An important IRS ruling shows how the use of trusts to hold personal assets can sometimes backfire if all tax factors are not considered. This ruling also drives home the fact that tax rules may change after assets have already been locked into a trust for a long period of time, making trusts sometimes inflexible in dealing with changing tax opportunities.

In the ruling, the IRS determined that the sale of a home, in which an individual resided for many years but to which title was legally held by a family trust, did not qualify for the Tax Code’s new capital gains exclusion on the sale of the house. The exclusion permits those who sell their personal residence anytime after May 6, 1997, to exclude up to $250,000 in capital gains ($500,000 for those filing joint returns). The IRS concluded that the individual’s inability to control the assets of the trust prevented her from being deemed an owner of the trust for tax purposes.

Family trusts: A common estate planning tool

As part of an estate plan, an individual may place assets, such as a home, into a trust and name an income beneficiary or beneficiaries. The income beneficiary has rights to any income from the trust and may even have use of the assets but has no control to sell, mortgage or dispose of the assets of the trust. Only the trust’s designated trustees have the power to make decisions related to the encumbrance or disposal of the trust’s assets. When the asset is a personal residence, this type of trust allows for preferential estate tax treatment while the income beneficiary has the ability to continue living in the home.

IRS: “No Capital Gain Exclusion”

The IRS’s stance is that, even though an individual may have enjoyed the use of a house for many years, if the house was in a family trust, ownership of the house would always be vested in the trust. Under the federal tax rules, a beneficiary of a trust may be deemed an owner of the trust if he or she has the power to reach and to take all of the trust’s assets for his or her use. When a beneficiary is treated as an owner, a sale by the trust is equivalent to a sale by the beneficiary. However, when an income beneficiary has no control over the fate of the assets of the trust, the IRS has found that the beneficiary is not the owner of the trust and therefore would not qualify for the Tax Code’s capital gains exclusion upon the sale of a residence held in such trust.

Planning for the smooth transition of your assets to your family upon death can be complicated and can have serious tax ramifications. Please contact the office for additional guidance in this area.