(This article, written by Robert Fleming, originally appeared in Elder Law Issues, vol. 16, no. 51 on August 17, 2009)
Imagine that you are trying to change the title on your bank account into the name of the living trust you and your spouse just set up. The nice lady at the bank is telling you that you need to get a new tax identification number for the trust. Could she be right? In a word, no.
Because we are lawyers, however, it is very hard for us to answer a complex question with a single word. So let us review some of the variations with you.
Is your trust revocable? This is the easiest variation. Give the bank (and your credit union, and your broker) your Social Security number. Joint trust between you and your spouse? No problem. Give them either Social Security number — just like before, when both of your names were on the account as individuals.
What if the trust is irrevocable? This is a little more confusing, but ultimately the answer is probably the same. If you receive any significant benefit from the trust, and your money went into it in the first place, you still use your Social Security number.
Is someone else the trustee of your trust? The answer is still the same — though many bank and brokerage officers will insist that this is what makes it mandatory for you to get a separate tax number. Simply put, they are wrong. If the trust is revocable use your Social Security number regardless of who the trustee might be. If it is irrevocable and someone else is the trustee, but you still receive benefits from the trust, use your Social Security number.
What if the trust is a “special needs” trust set up with your personal injury settlement or other funds? You still use your Social Security number. The “special needs” designation does not change the answer.
What about the “special needs” trust you set up with your money but for the benefit of your child? Now we’re getting interesting. Can you revoke the trust? What happens if your child dies before you do — does the money return to you? In either case, you probably use your Social Security number, and report the income on your tax return. Talk to your accountant and/or lawyer — don’t accept the banker’s (or broker’s) analysis of the legal and tax implications.
Is there ever a time when a new tax ID number is required for a trust? Yes, though the circumstances requiring a separate number are not as numerous as most bank officers, brokers and (for that matter) accountants think. These are not the only situations requiring a new number, but the three most common are:
- Life insurance trusts, or so-called “Crummey” trusts. Just because your trust owns life insurance it does not automatically follow that this special rule applies, but if it was set up precisely to own life insurance, and you are not the trustee, it likely needs its own number.
- A trust that becames irrevocable because of the death of the person setting the the trust up in the first place. This can happen when one spoue dies and a trust becomes partly irrevocable, too.
- A special needs trusts you set up (with your money) for the benefit of someone else, but which does not revert to you if the beneficiary dies before you — especially if you are not even the trustee.
When a separate number is required, what kind of number is it? The actual name for a tax identification number for a trust is “Employer Identification Number” or EIN. That is true even though the trust may not have any employees. The common acronym “TIN” (tax identification number) is not really an IRS or Social Security term at all — it is usually used as an umbrella term to encompass both EINs and Social Security numbers.
Why do bankers and stockbrokers insist that I need a new tax ID number if I do not? We’re puzzled, too. Our best answer: they are reading from a prepared list of choices, and they do not really understand the reasoning behind the various categories and approaches. We have had good experience talking with the bank employee on behalf of our clients, but sometimes it requires working up through the levels of authority.
Did you already get an EIN (Employer Identification Number) for your trust? Is that a problem?Probably not. You have two choices: change the tax identification number on all the accounts back to your Social Security number and file a final income tax return for the trust, or file annual tax returns under the trust’s EIN but without including any income or expenses — list those on your own tax return instead.
There is a lot of confusion in the financial industry about tax identification numbers and trusts. Feel free to print this out and take it to your banker.