Income Taxation of Trusts and Estates: Current Rates and Keeping an Eye to the Future

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Key Takeaways

  • Ordinary income tax rates for trusts and estates currently range from 10% to 37%.
  • In the absence of future legislation, tax rates and brackets will revert back to prior levels after December 31, 2025.
  • Careful attention is encouraged when preparing income tax returns for trusts and estates, as fiduciaries can be held personally liable for erroneous tax reporting positions.

Trusts and estates continue to benefit from the reduced tax rates established under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017. Ordinary income tax rates for trusts and estates for taxable years beginning after December 31, 2018, and continuing through December 31, 2025, range from 10% to 37%.

If an estate or trust generates more than $600 in annual gross income, a Form 1041 (Income Tax Return for Estates and Trusts) must be filed. Furthermore, a fiduciary is also generally required to file a Form 1041 for a domestic trust that has any taxable income for the tax year.

The tax rate schedule for trusts and estates in 2024 is as follows:

2024 Federal Estate and Trust Income Tax Rates (Ordinary Income)
If taxable income is: The tax is:
Not over $3,100 10% of the taxable income
Over $3,100 but not over $11,150 $310 plus 24% of the excess over $3,100
Over $11,150 but not over $15,200 $2,242 plus 35% of the excess over $11,150
Over $15,200 $3,659.50 plus 37% of the excess over $15,200

In the absence of future legislation, for taxable years beginning after December 31, 2025, these rates will sunset, and tax rates and brackets will revert back to prior levels, with increased rates and the top bracket being taxed at 39.6%.

Capital Gains Tax

For trusts and estates, income from assets held 12 months or less (short-term capital gains) 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 long-term capital gains rate.

For trusts and estates during 2024, a 15% capital gains tax rate applies to adjusted capital gains of more than $3,150 and up to $15,450, with capital gains over $15,450 being taxed at a 20% rate.

Section 645 Election

A common estate planning document taxpayers use is known as a revocable living trust. In many cases, the revocable living trust serves as the primary estate planning document for the grantor, with the grantor’s last will and testament serving primarily to “pour over” any probate assets to the revocable trust upon the grantor’s death.

When implemented correctly during the grantor’s life, the revocable trust may allow the grantor’s estate to bypass the probate process entirely.

If the trust is a “qualified revocable trust,” as defined under Internal Revenue Code Section 645, the trustee of the revocable trust and the executor of the estate can use a Section 645 election to treat the trust as part of the estate for federal income tax purposes.

In addition to the benefit of combining the trust and estate into a single income tax return, this election also allows the estate to select a fiscal year end, as opposed to a calendar year end. Depending on the date of the decedent’s death, this may allow the trustee and executor the ability to defer income and avoid the expense of multiple tax filings.

Tax Considerations Upon Death of Taxpayer

When a taxpayer dies without trusts or other specialized planning, his or her estate becomes a separate legal entity for federal income tax purposes. In such an event, the estate must obtain its own federal tax identification number. Any income attributable to the decedent’s estate will be subject to the estate income tax rates described above and the rules described in Subchapter J of the income tax provisions of the Internal Revenue Code.

Similarly, for a taxpayer with a revocable living trust, upon the grantor’s death, such trust typically becomes irrevocable, and the trust must obtain a separate tax identification number. Additionally, any income earned by a trust or estate after the decedent’s death will be subject to trust and estate income tax rates and rules.

In addition to the income tax filing requirements for trusts and estates, there may also be a need to file an IRS Form 706 (Estate Tax Return) for the decedent’s estate. Filing of a federal estate tax return is required when a taxpayer’s gross estate plus adjusted taxable gifts exceed the federal estate tax exemption. When there is a surviving spouse, it is often beneficial to file an estate tax return for the primary purpose of electing portability of the decedent’s remaining estate tax exemption. Transferring (something referred to as “porting”) of the deceased spouse’s unused exemption amount to the surviving spouse provides future opportunities for estate and gift tax savings.

Proper Tax Planning Requires Careful Consideration

For trustees and executors, it is important to review the tax provisions of the decedent’s wills and trusts with a qualified tax advisor to ensure you are administering the trust or estate in a manner that will achieve accurate tax results for the beneficiaries of the trust or estate. Careful attention should be considered in preparing income tax returns for trusts and estates, as fiduciaries can be held personally liable for mistakes and erroneous tax reporting positions.

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About the Author(s)

Devin Hecht

Devin Hecht, J.D., LL.M.

Principal, Wealth Transition Services Practice Leader
Devin assists our clients in thoughtfully approaching their estate and succession planning. Prior to joining Eide Bailly, Devin worked as a tax attorney and partner in the Tax, Trusts and Estates practice group of a regional law firm. At Eide Bailly, he assists clients in the area of estate planning and advisory services in estate and gift tax, generation-skipping transfer tax, income tax and other tax matters.
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Leah Mitchell

Leah assists Eide Bailly clients through both compliance and consulting services related to estate planning and wealth transition. Leah helps clients understand the various tax implications of estate and business succession planning and can assist them with the development and implementation of estate and gift tax planning strategies. With a personal and educational background in the agricultural industry, Leah particularly enjoys assisting farmers and ranchers with the unique and complex issues they face related to estate planning and wealth transition.