To pay or not to pay… to what state does my Trust pay taxes?

In a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision, North Carolina Department of Revenue v. Kimberly Rice Kaestner 1992 Family Trust (“Kaestner”), the Court held that a State may not tax the income earned by a trust based solely on the state of residence of the trust’s beneficiaries.

Kaestner concerned a trust established by Kimberly Rice Kaestner’s father, a New York resident, for the benefit of Kimberly and her three children, who were North Carolina residents during the tax years at issue.  North Carolina attempted to tax income earned by the trust for the 2005-2008 tax years based on a North Carolina law authorizing the State to tax any trust income “for the benefit of” a state resident.

However, the trust itself was subject to New York law, the trustee was a New York resident, and the trust’s assets were managed by a custodian in Massachusetts.  The fact that the trust’s beneficiaries were North Carolina residents was, therefore, the trust’s sole link to the state.  Finally, the language of the trust gave the trustee complete discretion over distributions of income and principal, and no income was distributed to Kimberly or her three children during the tax years in question.

The Court struck down the North Carolina statute, holding that it was an unconstitutional violation of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.  The Due Process Clause limits the States’ authority to impose taxes to those that “bear a fiscal relation to protection, opportunities and benefits given by the state.”  In the context of a tax premised on the residency of a trust’s beneficiary, the beneficiary in question “must have a degree of possession, control, or enjoyment of the trust property or a right to receive that property.”  The Court held that, because Kimberly and her three children did not receive any income from the trust during the relevant tax years, nor did they have the right to demand any such distributions, the trust lacked the requisite minimum contacts with the state of North Carolina.

While the Court’s holding in Kaestner is undoubtedly a “win” for grantors, trustees and trust beneficiaries, the holding is very narrow and fact-specific, and therefore provides limited guidance with respect to other state income tax regimes.

If you have any questions on this topic, please contact Lin Law LLC at (920) 393-1190.