MARCH 26, 2012 VOLUME 19 NUMBER 12
Here at Fleming & Curti, PLC, we keep tabs on what brings people to our website. We look at referring pages, at search terms and at a variety of other items. We are intrigued by what persistently tops the search-engine list. The most common search? It’s some variation of: “do I need a new tax ID number for my living trust?” (For those keeping score, the second-most-common question seems to be “can I leave my IRA to a living trust?“)
Why the enduring interest? Because the question is so much less complicated than people think it is. There is a surprising paucity of clear information about when you need to have a new tax ID number (an EIN, if you want to use the correct acronym). And much of the information out there is contradictory.
We have written about the question several times before. In 2009 we asked and answered the question: “Do you need a new tax ID number for your living trust?” Just last year we reviewed the question, along with some other reader questions, and provided a little more detail on when your trust needs an EIN. Since those two explanations the rules haven’t really changed — but your questions have gotten a little bit more sophisticated.
Several of those questions deal with the same basic scenario: what happens when a husband and wife have a joint trust, using one spouse’s Social Security number, and then that spouse dies? The answer will depend on what the trust provides.
First, a word about joint trusts for spouses: they are common in community property states (like Arizona), not as common in those states where community property principles do not apply. Remember, please, that we are Arizona lawyers, and so we write here about Arizona rules. Attorneys from other states are more than free to add their comments; we will post them as we receive them — but we are not vouching for the accuracy of their advice in states other than Arizona.
Let’s set up a scenario, drawn from our common experience: Husband and wife created a joint revocable trust, and their bank accounts, brokerage accounts, insurance — all of their assets, in fact — listed the husband’s Social Security number. They could do that because, as with a joint account outside of a trust, tax rules allow one owner’s identifying number to be used rather than having to use all owners’ numbers. But now the husband has died. What should the (surviving) wife do about the TIN (Taxpayer Identification Number)?
Before we answer, we need to know what happens to the trust on the death of the first spouse. Let’s assume, for a moment, that it remains in one trust, that the wife now has the power to amend or revoke it in its entirety, and that she is the sole trustee. In that case, the direction is easy: tell the bank, the brokerage house and the insurance company to change the name of the trustee from the couple to the wife, and to change the TIN to the wife’s Social Security number. How do you do that? Send them a death certificate and a letter instructing them to make the changes. Assume, incidentally, that they won’t — it will often take you two or three tries, several phone calls, and some wheedling to get the task done. But that’s what should happen.
What if the wife is not the sole trustee? Let’s say, for a moment, that the oldest daughter now becomes co-trustee with her mother, but that the trust remains revocable and amendable by the wife. In that situation, we have the same answer: switch to the wife’s Social Security number.
What if the wife has the power to revoke or amend the trust, but she is now incapacitated? The oldest daughter is the sole trustee, and isn’t sure what to tell the financial institutions. The answer is still the same: the trust is still revocable (even though there may be no practical way to revoke it if the only person with power to do so is incapacitated), and the wife’s Social Security number is the trust’s TIN (expect to have an argument with the financial institutions over this one). Is a bank trust department the successor trustee instead? Same answer — but with the ironic twist that the argument between trustee and financial institution will now occur between two branches of the same organization.
Sometimes a joint revocable trust becomes irrevocable on the death of one spouse. More commonly it splits into two (or sometimes three) portions, one (or two) of which are irrevocable. What happens then? The answer, as you might expect, is a little bit more complicated — and may not be the same in every case.
Generally speaking, an irrevocable trust that does not contain the assets originally belonging to the beneficiary is likely to need its own EIN. That may mean that one (sometimes two) of the trusts resulting from the death of one spouse needs a new EIN, and one just uses the surviving spouse’s Social Security number.
Let’s use a specific example: in our earlier scenario, after the death of the husband the joint revocable trust splits into a “Decedent’s” (sometimes “bypass”) share and a “Survivor’s” share. The Decedent’s Trust is irrevocable. Wife is the trustee, and she is entitled to all the income from the trust. She may even have the ability to distribute trust principal to herself, or to decide how the Trust is divided among the couple’s children at her death. But this trust is not “grantor” trust — it gets taxed as a separate entity. Hence, it needs its own EIN, and it files its own tax returns.
Mechanically, the process of dividing the trust is a little more complicated than in our earlier scenario. An estate tax return may be required (although it may not). A division of trust assets needs to be completed (the assistance of a competent lawyer and a good accountant is essential here). The share to be assigned to the Decedent’s Trust needs to be identified, and then physically transferred into a new account — often titled something like “The Jones Family Trust — Decedent’s Trust” (yeah, we know — your name isn’t Jones. Stick with us anyway). And that new account needs to use the Decedent’s Trust’s new EIN.
Note that we said that the assets need to be transferred into the new account. Most financial institutions will insist on opening a new account, with a new account number, rather than simply changing the name on an existing account. But when the process is completed — however you and the financial institution get there — the Decedent’s Trust should be physically separated from the Survivor’s Trust, it will have its own EIN, and it will need to file tax returns. Note: it probably will not pay any tax as a separate entity — all its income will probably be imputed to the surviving spouse.
Meanwhile, the remaining trust assets in our example will continue to use the wife’s Social Security number. It may not be crucial to change the name on that account to “The Jones Family Trust — Survivor’s Trust” (those Joneses — they end up will all the money anyway). If you long for clarity, we would certainly support a transfer of the Surivor’s Trust share into a new account, titled as part of that sub-trust, and bearing the wife’s Social Security number — even if it is not required.
Recall, please, that there are lots of variations on this basic scenario. Be careful about generalizing from this information to your precise circumstances. Our goal here is to give you some general notions about what needs to be done — we do not think of ourselves as a substitute for good, personalized legal advice. We think, in fact, that you should get some of that, because your situation might well be more complicated than you think it is. But we hope we’ve given you some idea of what your attorney will be asking you, and what he or she is likely to tell you.