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Tax Matters

A closer look at the fine print on family trusts Add to ...

I recall Jerry Seinfeld once saying that there is no such thing as fun for the whole family; there are no massage parlours with ice cream and free jewellery. I'm not sure he was thinking outside the box. After all, there are family trusts, which can provide income to everyone in the family; that sounds like fun to me. I started this discussion last week. Today, let's talk about some of the finer points you should know about family trusts.

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1. Establishing the trust. There will be a problem under our tax law if the settlor of the trust (the person who creates the trust by transferring assets to it) has the ability to take back the assets placed in the trust, has the right to name additional beneficiaries of the trust after its creation, or has the ability to control dispositions of the trust assets. If any of these conditions apply, the income, gains or losses of the trust will be reported on the settlor's tax return. To avoid this outcome, it's important to make sure that the settlor is not also the sole trustee (or a trustee with veto power over what is done with the trust assets) or sole beneficiary. The best approach is to have another family member - perhaps a parent or grandparent - be the settlor of the trust. This family member can "settle" the trust with a small asset such as a silver coin or $20 bill. The trust can then acquire other assets by, for example, borrowing money from you or others to acquire investments, shares in a private company, a vacation home, or other assets.

2. Transfers to the trust. If you transfer assets other than cash to a trust you'll be deemed to have sold those assets at fair market value, so if they've appreciated in value, you could trigger a taxable capital gain. Be sure to count this cost first. You may be able to shelter from tax a capital gain on transferring assets to a trust if you have, for example, capital losses to use up, or some other tax deductions or credits available. And if you transfer a principal residence to a trust, you might be able to use your principal residence exemption on the transfer to avoid a tax hit.

3. Income of the trust. The income of the trust can be taxed in the hands of the trust, or one or more of the beneficiaries. Where the beneficiaries are minors, or your spouse, the attribution rules in our tax law could apply to cause the income to be taxed in your hands - that is, the hands of the settlor or someone who may have transferred assets to the trust. You can avoid this problem by lending money to the trust instead and charging the prescribed rate of interest (currently 1 per cent). You should also know that where a trust receives certain types of income, such as dividends from private companies, or rent or business income earned from a property or business carried on by a person related to minor beneficiaries, and an attempt is made to have that trust income taxed in the hands of minor beneficiaries, the "kiddie tax" rules can apply to cause the child to pay tax at the highest marginal tax rate. The kiddie tax won't apply to second-generation income (that is, income on income), so it's still possible for the trust to receive income subject to this tax, and use the cash to build up investments over time, and avoid the kiddie tax on any second-generation income.

4. Distributions from the trust. The assets, or capital of the trust, can generally be distributed from the trust on a tax-free basis to the beneficiaries of the trust who have a right to the capital. In this case, the beneficiaries inherit the adjusted cost base of the trust and may pay tax later on any income or gains on those assets they receive.

5. Twenty-one years later. Be aware that on every 21st anniversary of the trust there will be a deemed disposition of the assets of the trust, which could trigger taxable capital gains. There are various ways to plan for this tax hit (a topic for another day).

6. Asset protection benefits. Finally, assets can often be protected from potential creditors when placed in a trust where the trustee has discretion to distribute the assets to beneficiaries as the trustee sees fit. However, there are laws in place to protect the rights of creditors, so speak to a lawyer about these.

And be sure to speak to a tax pro before setting up a trust.

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