Filing a Tax Return for a Special Needs Trust: What a Trustee Needs to Know at Tax Time

This installment of the Voice was written by Special Needs Alliance member Tara Anne Pleat. Tara is a founding partner of the law firm of Wilcenski & Pleat PLLC ( in Clifton Park, New York. She practices in the areas of special needs planning, elder law, and trust and estate planning and administration. Tara writes and lectures frequently on issues affecting individuals with disabilities and their families.

March 2014 - Vol. 8, Issue 2

Taxation of trusts was the subject of two prior articles that were published in the Voice in 2012. The first article, A Short Primer on Trusts and Trust Taxation authored by SNA member Barb Hughes and me, focused on the taxation of trusts in general. The second article, Is a Qualified Disability Trust Appropriate? by Special Needs Alliance member Elizabeth L. Gray, focused on qualified disability trusts, a tax classification that is unique to trusts where there is a beneficiary who has been determined disabled by the Social Security Administration.

The primary focus of this article is to provide an introduction to the tax form that typically must be filed for special needs trusts that are generating income.

Does the trustee of a special needs trust have to file an income tax return?

Trusts generally are considered separate taxable entities for income tax purposes, and the trustee must file an income tax return for the trust.

First-party special needs trusts

First-party special needs trusts are funded with the assets of an individual with a disability who is typically participating in a means-tested government benefit program such as Supplemental Security Income or Medicaid. First-party special needs trusts generally always receive the tax classification of a “grantor trust.” This tax classification means that all of the items of income, deduction and credit generated by the trust should be reflected on the personal income tax return of the individual with the disability, who is the trust beneficiary. In first-party special needs trusts, the grantor is actually the beneficiary because the law requires the trust be funded with the beneficiary’s own assets. (However, inexplicably, the law requires that the first-party special needs trust cannot be established by the beneficiary, even if competent, but rather must be established by a parent, grandparent, legal guardian or a court.)

Practice varies regarding how to report this income. Some trustees obtain a separate taxpayer identification number for the first-party special needs trust when it is established. As a result, when the time comes for financial institutions to report how much income the trust has earned, a Form 1099 will be issued to the trust reflecting the trust’s separate taxpayer identification number.

The question then becomes: how does this income, which is reported to the IRS under the trust’s separate taxpayer identification number, make its way onto the personal income tax return of the trust beneficiary? The answer is that the trustee of the first-party special needs trust files an informational Form 1041 with a grantor trust information letter attached. The mechanics of this informational filing are described in greater detail below.

Alternatively, in situations where the trustee of a first-party special needs trust does not obtain a separate taxpayer identification number for the trust, the beneficiary’s social security number is reflected as the taxpayer identification number for the trust. Since the beneficiary’s social security number is reflected on the Form 1099s issued by the financial institutions reporting the income earned by the trust, a separate informational Form 1041 is not generally filed.

Third party special needs trusts

Third-party special needs trusts are generally either considered complex trusts or qualified disability trusts for income tax purposes, and the trust itself is responsible for reporting its own items of income, deduction and credit. This filing is also made on Form 1041, but as described below, there is significantly more that goes into completing an income tax return for a complex trust or qualified disability trust than that of a grantor trust.

What is a Form 1041?

Similar to a Form 1040 on which individuals report their income annually to the federal government, Form 1041 U.S. Income Tax Return for Estates and Trusts is the form on which most trustees and other fiduciaries (i.e. executors, personal representatives and administrators of estates) report income to the federal government.

In states where trusts are also subject to a separate state income tax, there is typically a state form on which estate and trust income needs to be reported. These forms differ from state to state, so if a trustee is unsure about whether a separate state return needs to be filed, and which form is to be used, the trustee should be sure to consult with an attorney or accountant who has familiarity with trust income taxation.

When must a Form 1041 be filed?

In the case of a first-party special needs trust which is a grantor trust for tax purposes and where a separate taxpayer identification number is obtained for the trust, the general rule is that if there is at least $1.00 of income, an informational return must be filed in order to provide the IRS with information about the taxpayer to whom that income should be taxed.

In the case of all other trusts, a Form 1041 generally must be filed if any one of the following three circumstances is applicable: (1) The trust had any taxable income for the tax year; (2) The trust had gross income of $600 or more (regardless of taxable income); or (3) The trust has a beneficiary who is a non-resident alien.

Since special needs trusts, regardless of type, must file on a calendar year basis, the Form 1041 return is due at the same time personal income tax returns are due, April 15th of the year following the year for which the income is being reported. It is possible to request an extension of time to file a Form 1041, but unlike the extension granted to individuals, only 5-month extensions are granted to trusts.

How does the trustee of a special needs trust complete Form 1041?

Every year, the Internal Revenue Service updates the Form 1041 (as it does for Form 1040) and issues instructions. The instructions are very detailed and are very helpful in navigating the completion of the Form 1041. These forms and instructions can be found on

First-party special needs trusts

As referenced above, if the trustee of the first-party special needs trust has obtained a separate taxpayer identification for the trust, this trust is likely classified as a grantor trust for income tax purposes. In these circumstances, the Form 1041 is very simple to complete.

The trustee will check the box on Form 1041 indicating that the trust is a grantor trust and provide some general information about the trust (name, address, tax identification number, and the date the trust was established). No income is reported on these returns. Typically, a statement will be added to the first page of the return indicating that the trust is a grantor trust and the income is taxable to the grantor under sections 671-678 of the Internal Revenue Code.

The income reporting is completed on an attachment to the Form 1041 that is often referred to as a “grantor trust information letter.” The attachment itself needs to reflect the following: (1) the name, social security number and address of the person to whom the income is taxable (generally the beneficiary with a disability in the context of first-party special needs trusts); (2) a detailed description of the taxable income; and (3) a detailed description of any deductions or credits that are applicable. Each of these items is then carried through and added to the personal income tax return of the beneficiary.

Third-party special needs trusts

Sometimes, third-party special needs trusts are grantor type trusts. This occurs when the person creating (and funding) the trust reserves certain rights, powers and authorities that cause grantor trust status. In the case of third-party special needs trusts, if the trust is considered a grantor trust, all items of income, deduction and credit are generally taxed to the individual(s) who created and funded the trust (typically parents or other relatives of the individual with a disability). Whether the grantor for income tax purposes is the trust beneficiary with a disability in the case of first-party special needs trusts or a relative of the beneficiary as is the case with third-party special needs trusts, the reporting method described above is the same.

For third-party special needs trusts that are non-grantor trusts that have a filing requirement, Form 1041 must be thoroughly completed. The trustee will first need to determine the tax classification of the trust; typically this will be either a complex trust or a qualified disability trust. Trusts that are classified as qualified disability trusts receive an exemption equivalent to a personal exemption, for 2013 income tax filing purposes $3,900, whereas trusts classified as complex only receive a $100 exemption.

All items of income, deduction and credit are reported on Form 1041 consistent with the Form’s instructions. Given the complexity of the Form 1041 and the rules that relate to the reporting of trust income in general, it is strongly recommended that trustees consult a tax preparer or attorney who specializes in fiduciary income taxation and special needs trusts.

What is a Schedule K-1 and when are they issued?

A K-1 is a tax form that is issued by a non-grantor trust to a beneficiary, when the trust makes distributions to that beneficiary that carry out income. By way of example, if a non-grantor trust had $5,000 of interest income in 2013 and made $6,000 worth of distributions for the benefit of the trust beneficiary, for income tax reporting purposes the trust is deemed to have distributed all of the trust income to the beneficiary. As a result, when the trust’s income tax return is prepared for 2013, a Schedule K-1 will be issued to the trust beneficiary advising him or her that $5,000 of interest income must be reported on his or her personal income tax return. In that case, $5,000 was the only income earned by the trust, the trust will not report any taxable income but rather will show that income as having been carried out to the trust beneficiary by issuing a Schedule K-1.

If instead of making $6,000 worth of distributions on behalf of the trust beneficiary, the trustee only made distributions of $3,000, the trust would still issue a K-1 to the trust beneficiary showing that $3,000 of interest income should be reported on the trust beneficiary’s personal income tax return but it would also report $2,000 of interest income taxable to the trust.

When tax is due on income generated by a special needs trust, who is responsible for paying the tax?

Typically, whether the income must be reported by the trust beneficiary on his or her own personal return due to the trust being a grantor trust or due to distributions made from a non-grantor trust that carry-out income to the beneficiary, the trust itself will have provisions that allow for the trust to pay any income tax due by the trust beneficiary on his or her own personal income tax return. While in these circumstances the actual responsibility for paying the income tax belongs to the beneficiary (the person by whom the income is reportable), often the trust beneficiary does not have his or her own assets to pay income tax liability and the trustee will use trust assets to pay any such liability.

When the income tax is reportable by the trust and taxed at the trust level, the trustee is responsible for paying any income tax due out of the trust assets.

Should a trustee hire an accountant or attorney to assist with filing Form 1041?

Unless the trustee specializes in the income taxation of trusts, it is prudent for the trustee to consult with or hire a tax preparer or attorney who specializes in income taxation of trusts. This is the case whether the trust is a grantor trust, complex trust, or qualified disability trust. Consulting with and hiring one of these professionals should ensure that all income is reported properly and no applicable or available deductions are lost or overlooked.

While there are similarities between personal and fiduciary income tax returns, the forms and the deductions available differ significantly. A firm with experience in preparing the tax returns can typically prepare them in a cost-efficient manner.

Since the filing of income tax returns will likely be required for the duration of the trust term, it is important that returns are prepared and filed correctly from the onset.

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