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IRS Cautions on Abusive Trusts

© by Greta P. Hicks, CPA

The IRS has issued an alert to practitioners (Notice 97-24) about trust arrangements that purport to reduce or eliminate federal taxes in ways that are not permitted by law (abusive trust arrangements).

Under the federal tax laws, trusts generally are separate entities subject to income tax (except for certain charitable or pension trusts that are expressly exempted by the tax laws and certain grantor trusts described in sections 671 - 679 of the Internal Revenue Code). Under these laws and certain court developed doctrines, either the trust, the beneficiary, or the transferor, as applicable, must pay the tax on the income realized by the trust including the income generated by property held in trust.

Abusive Trust Arrangements - In General

Abusive trust arrangements typically are promoted by the promise of tax benefits with no meaningful change in the taxpayer's control over or benefit from the taxpayer's income or assets. The promised benefits may include reduction or elimination of income subject to tax; deductions for personal expenses paid by the trust; depreciation deductions of an owner's personal residence and furnishings; a stepped-up basis for property transferred to the trust; the reduction or elimination of self-employment taxes; and the reduction or elimination of gift and estate taxes. These promised benefits are inconsistent with the tax rules applicable to the abusive trust arrangements, as described below.

Abusive trust arrangements often use trusts to hide the true ownership of assets and income or to disguise the substance of transactions. These arrangements frequently involve more than one trust, each holding different assets of the taxpayer (for example, the taxpayer's business, business equipment, home, automobile, etc.), as well as interests in other trusts. Funds may flow from one trust to another trust by way of rental agreements, fees for services, purchase and sale agreements, and distributions. Some trusts purport to involve charitable purposes. In some situations, one or more foreign trusts also may be part of the arrangement.

Examples Of Abusive Trust Arrangements

Described below are five examples of abusive trust arrangements that have come to the attention of the Internal Revenue Service. An abusive trust arrangement may involve some or all of the trusts described below. The type of trust arrangement selected is dependent on the particular tax benefit the arrangement purports to achieve. In each of the trusts described below, the original owner of the assets that are nominally subject to the trust effectively retains authority to cause the financial benefits of the trust to be directly or indirectly returned or made available to the owner. For example, the trustee may be the promoter, or a relative or friend of the owner who simply carries out the directions of the owner whether or not permitted by the terms of the trust. Often, the trustee gives the owner checks that are pre-signed by the trustee, checks that are accompanied by a rubber stamp of the trustee's signature, a credit card or a debit card with the intention of permitting the owner to obtain cash from the trust or otherwise to use the assets of the trust for the owner's benefit.

The Business Trust.

The owner of a business transfers the business to a trust (sometimes described as an unincorporated business trust) in exchange for units or certificates of beneficial interest, sometimes described as units of beneficial interest or UBI's (trust units). The business trust makes payments to the trust unit holders or to other trusts created by the owner (characterized either as deductible business expenses or as deductible distributions) that purport to reduce the taxable income of the business trust to the point where little or no tax is due from the business trust. In addition, the owner claims the arrangement reduces or eliminates the owner's self-employment taxes on the theory that the owner is receiving reduced or no income from the operation of the business. In some cases, the trust units are supposed to be canceled at death or "sold" at a nominal price to the owner's children, leading to the contention by promoters that there is no estate tax liability.

The Equipment Or Service Trust.

The equipment trust is formed to hold equipment that is rented or leased to the business trust, often at inflated rates. The service trust is formed to provide services to the business trust, often for inflated fees. Under these abusive trust arrangements, the business trust may purport to reduce its income by making allegedly deductible payments to the equipment or service trust. Further, as to the equipment trust, the equipment owner may claim that the transfer of equipment to the equipment trust in exchange for the trust units is a taxable exchange. The trust takes the position that the trust has "purchased" the equipment with a known value (its fair market value) and that the value is the tax basis of the equipment for purposes of claiming depreciation deductions. The owner, on the other hand, takes the inconsistent position that the value of the trust units received cannot be determined, resulting in no taxable gain to the owner on the exchange. The equipment or service trust also may attempt to reduce or eliminate its income by distributions to other trusts.

The Family Residence Trust.

The owner of the family residence transfers the residence, including its furnishings, to a trust. The parties claim inconsistent tax treatment for the trust and the owner (similar to the equipment trust). The trust claims the exchange results in a stepped-up basis for the property, while the owner reports no gain. The trust claims to be in the rental business and purports to rent the residence back to the owner; however, in most cases, little or no rent is actually paid. Rather, the owner contends that the owner and family members are caretakers or provide services to the trust and, therefore, live in the residence for the benefit of the trust. Under some arrangements, the family residence trust receives funds from other trusts (such as a business trust) which are treated as the income of the trust. In order to reduce the tax which might be due with respect to such income (and any income from rent actually paid by the owner), the trust may attempt to deduct depreciation and the expenses of maintaining and operating the residence.

The Charitable Trust.

The owner transfers assets to a purported charitable trust and claims either that the payments to the trust are deductible or that payments made by the trust are deductible charitable contributions. Payments are made to charitable organizations; however, in fact, the payments are principally for the personal educational, living, or recreational expenses of the owner or the owner's family. For example, the trust may pay for the college tuition of a child of the owner.

The Final Trust.

In some multi-trust arrangements, the U.S. owner of one or more abusive trusts establishes a trust (the "final trust") that holds trust units of the owner's other trusts and is the final distributee of their income. A final trust often is formed in a foreign country that will impose little or no tax on the trust. In some arrangements, more than one foreign trust is used, with the cash flowing from one trust to another until the cash is ultimately distributed or made available to the U.S. owner, purportedly tax free.

Legal Principles Applicable To Trusts

As noted above, when trusts are used for legitimate business, family or estate planning purposes, either the trust, the trust beneficiary, or the transferor to the trust, as appropriate under the tax laws, will pay the tax on the income generated by the trust property. When used in accordance with the tax laws, trusts will not transform a taxpayer's personal, living or educational expenses into deductible items, and will not seek to avoid tax liability by ignoring either the true ownership of income and assets or the true substance of transactions. Accordingly, the tax results that are promised by the promoters of abusive trust arrangements are not allowable under federal tax law. Contrary to promises made in promotional materials, several well-established tax principles control the proper tax treatment of these abusive trust arrangements.

Grantors May Be Treated As Owners Of Trusts.

The grantor trust rules provide that if the owner of property transferred to a trust retains an economic interest in, or control over, the trust, the owner is treated for income tax purposes as the owner of the trust property, and all transactions by the trust are treated as transactions of the owner. Sections 671 - 677. In addition, a U.S. person who directly or indirectly transfers property to a foreign trust is treated as the owner of that property if there is a U.S. beneficiary of the trust. Section 679. This means that all expenses and income of the trust would belong to and must be reported by the owner, and tax deductions and losses arising from transactions between the owner and the trust would be ignored. Furthermore, there would be no taxable "exchange" of property with the trust, and the tax basis of property transferred to the trust would not be stepped- up for depreciation purposes. See Rev. Rul. 85-13, 1985-1 C.B. 184.

Personal Expenses Are Generally Not Deductible.

Personal expenses such as those for home maintenance, education, and personal travel are not deductible unless expressly authorized by the tax laws. See section 262. The courts have consistently held that non-deductible personal expenses cannot be transformed into deductible expenses by the use of trusts. Furthermore, the costs of creating these trusts are not deductible.

A Genuine Charity Must Benefit In Order To Claim A Valid Charitable Deduction.

Charitable trusts that are exempt from tax are carefully defined in the tax law. Arrangements are not exempt charitable trusts if they do not satisfy the requirements of the tax law, including the requirement that their true purpose is to benefit charity. Furthermore, supposed charitable payments made by a trust are not deductible charitable contributions where the payments are really for the benefit of the owner or the owner's family members. See, for example, Fausner v. Commissioner, 55 T.C. 620 (1971).

Civil And/Or Criminal Penalties May Apply.

The participants in and promoters of abusive trust arrangements may be subject to civil and/or criminal penalties in appropriate cases. See, for example, United States v. Buttorff, 761 F.2d 1056 (5th Cir. 1985); United States v. Krall, 835 F.2d 711 (8th Cir. 1987); Zmuda and Neely.

IRS Enforcement Strategy For Abusive Trusts

The Internal Revenue Service has undertaken a nationally coordinated enforcement initiative to address abusive trust schemes - the National Compliance Strategy, Fiduciary and Special Projects.

As part of this strategy, the Service seeks to encourage voluntary compliance with the tax law. Accordingly, taxpayers who have participated in abusive trust arrangements are encouraged to file correct tax returns for 1996, as well as amended tax returns for prior years, consistent with the explanation of the law set forth in this notice.

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GRETA P. HICKS, CPA and former IRS manager, concentrates in solutions to IRS problems and advises business and tax professional on IRS policies and procedures. Ms Hicks is owner of TAX SOLUTIONS, Inc., a company providing educational materials and programs on solutions to IRS problems and is a nationally known speaker and writer on solutions to IRS problems. To arrange for consultation contact: Greta's web site:


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