Income tax and capital gains tax issues
Because a trust is not a person, its income is not taxed like that of an individual or company unless it is a corporate, public or trading trusts as defined in the Income Tax Assessment Act 1936 (Cth). In essence the tax treatment of the trust income depends on who is and is not entitled to the income as at midnight on 30 June each year.
If all or part of the trust’s net income for tax purposes is paid or belongs to an ordinary beneficiary, it will be taxed in their hands like any other income. If a beneficiary who is entitled to the net income is under a “legal disability” (such as an infant), the income will be taxed to the trustee at the relevant individual rates. Income to which no beneficiary is “presently entitled” will generally be taxed at the flat rate of 47% and for this reason it is important to ensure that the relevant decisions are made as soon as possible after 30 June each year and certainly within 2 months of the end of the year. The two month “period of grace” is particularly relevant for trusts which operate businesses as they will not have finalised their accounts by 30 June. In the case of discretionary trusts, if this is done the overall amount of tax can be minimised by allocating income to beneficiaries who pay a relatively low rate of tax.
The concept of “present entitlement” involves the idea that the beneficiary could demand immediate payment of their entitlement. It is important to note that a company which is a trustee of a trust is not subject to company tax on the trust income it has responsibility for administering.
In relation to capital gains tax (“CGT“), a trust which holds an asset for at least 12 months is generally eligible for the 50% capital gains tax concession on capital gains that are made. This discount effectively “flows” through to beneficiaries who are individuals. A corporate beneficiary does not get the benefit of the 50% discount. Trusts that are used in a business rather than an investment context may also be entitled to additional tax concessions under the small business CGT concessions.
Since the late 1990’s discretionary trusts and small unit trusts have been affected by a number of highly technical measures which affect the treatment of franking credits and tax losses. This is an area where specialist tax advice is essential.