Application of Net Investment Income tax to trusts create unique issues

A new tax applies to certain taxpayers, beginning in 2013—the 3.8 percent Net Investment Income Tax (NII). This is a surtax that certain higher-income taxpayers may owe in addition to their income tax or alternative minimum tax. The tax applies to individuals, estates, and trusts (but not to corporations). Individuals are subject to the tax if they have NII, and their adjusted gross income exceeds a specified threshold—$250,000 for married taxpayers filing jointly; $200,000 for unmarried individuals.

For trusts, the NII tax applies at a much lower income level—the amount at which the highest tax bracket for a trust begins. This may sound high, but in fact, it is not. For 2014, this bracket begins at $12,150. A trust subject to the NII tax may lower or eliminate its potential liability by distributing NII to its beneficiaries, because the tax applies only to the undistributed NII for the year. The tax may then apply to the recipient, but based on the recipient’s income level.

Exempt and nonexempt trusts

Some trusts are exempt from the NII tax: cemetery perpetual care funds; Alaska Native Settlement Trusts electing to be taxed under Code Sec. 646; wholly charitable trusts; and foreign trusts. However, other trusts are not exempt. These include pooled income funds (where individuals donate remainder interests to charity while retaining an income interest); qualified funeral trusts; electing small business trusts; and charitable remainder trusts.

Passive activity

For individuals, trusts, and estates, the tax applies to income from a trade or business that is a passive activity with respect to the taxpayer. A trade or business is not passive if the taxpayer materially participates in the activity (as determined under Code Sec. 469). There is IRS guidance for determining whether an individual materially participates in an activity.

Material participation

The IRS has never provided guidance on how to determine whether a trust or estate materially participates in a trade or business. When the IRS issued final regulations on the NII tax, it said that the issue was under study, but the IRS has not indicated whether it will issue guidance on the issue.

The IRS regulations conclude that the application of the material participation requirements to trust income potentially subject to the NII tax must be determined at the trust level. The treatment of the income as passive or nonpassive, once determined for the trust, flows through to trust beneficiaries who receive a distribution of NII. Thus, if the trust materially participates in the activity that generated the income, the income is nonpassive to both the trust and its beneficiaries, regardless of the age or involvement of the beneficiaries. If the trust did not materially participate, the income is passive to both the trust and its beneficiaries, even if a beneficiary materially participated in the activity.

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