By: Steven D. Hamilton, Principal, Steven D. Hamilton, CPA

March 22, 2015 7:55 pm EDT

It happened again this week. I was speaking with another accountant when he raised a tax question concerning an “estate” return. My stock question to him was whether it was an “estate fiduciary” or an “estate estate.” Both have the word “estate” in it, so one needs further clarification.

What is the difference?

If one dies with too many assets, then the government requires one to pay taxes on the transfer of assets to the next person. This is sometimes referred to as the “death” tax, and I sometimes refer to it as the “estate estate” tax.

It has gotten a little more difficult to trigger the federal estate tax, as the taxable threshold has been raised to over $5 million. That pretty much clears out most folk.

Then you can have the issue of the estate earning income. How can this happen? An easy way is to own stock, or a business – or perhaps a part of a business through a partnership or S corporation. That income will belong to the estate until the business is transferred to the beneficiary. That may require a trip to probate court, getting on the docket, waiting on the judge…. In the interim the estate has income.

And what do you have when an estate has income? You have an income tax return, of course. There is no way the government is not going to grab its share. I sometimes refer to that tax return as the “estate fiduciary.” A trust is a fiduciary, for example. The estate is behaving as a fiduciary because it is handling money that belongs to other people – the same as a trust.

Say that an estate receives a disbursement from someone’s 401(k). That represents income. This is usually a significant amount, and Hamilton’s Third Theorem states that a percentage of a significant number is likely to also be a significant number. This seems to always come as a surprise when the attorney fires over an estate’s paperwork – usually very near the filing due date – with the expectation that I “take care of it.”

Then we are looking for deductions.

A fiduciary has a deduction called an “income distribution,” which I rely upon heavily in situations like this. We will not dwell on it, other than to say that the fiduciary may be allowed a deduction when he/she writes a check to a beneficiary.

No, the deduction I want to talk about today is about a contribution to charity.  Does our “estate fiduciary” get a deduction for a charity? You bet.

Let’s take this a step further. What if the estate intends to write a check to charity but it cannot just yet? Can it still get a deduction?


This is a different rule than for you and me, folks. The estate has a more lenient rule because it may have to wait on a court hearing and receive a judge’s approval before writing that check. The IRS – acknowledging that this could wreak havoc on claiming deductions – grants a little leeway.

But only a little. This rule is known as the “set aside,” and one must meet three requirements:

  1. The contribution is coming from estate income (that is, not from estate corpus)
  2. The contribution must be allowed by estate organizing documents (like a will), and
  3. The money must be permanently set aside, meaning that the likelihood that it would not be used as intended is negligible.

So, if we can clear the above three requirements – and the estate intends to make a contribution – then the estate has a possible deduction against that 401(k) distribution that I learned about only two or three days before the return is due.

What can go wrong?

One can flub the “negligible” requirement.

I cannot remember the last time I read about a case where someone flubbed this test, but I have recently finished reading one.

The decedent (Ms Belmont) passed way with a quarter million in her 401(k) and a condo in California. She lived in Ohio.

Alright, there is more than one state involved. It is a pain but it happens all the time.

Her brother lived in the condo. He was to receive approximately $50,000, with the bulk of the estate going to charity. He was under mental care, so there may have been a disability involved.

How can this blow up? Her brother did not want to move out of the house. He offered to exchange his $50,000 for a life estate. He really wanted to stay in that house.

The charity on the other hand did not want to be a landlord.

Her brother brought action and litigation. He argued that he had a life estate, and he was being deprived of his contractual rights.  He filed with the Los Angeles County Probate Court and the California Recorder’s Office.  

Meanwhile the estate fiduciary return was due. There was a big old number in there for the 401(k) distribution. The accountant – who somehow was not fully informed of developing events in California – claimed a charitable contribution deduction using the “set aside” doctrine.

The California court decided in the brother’s favor and orders a life estate to him and a remainder deed to the charity.

The estate thinks to itself, “what are the odds?” It keeps that set aside deduction on the estate fiduciary return though.

The IRS thinks otherwise. It points out that the brother was hip deep by the time the accountant prepared the return, and the argument that risks to the set aside were “negligible” were unreasonable when he was opening up all the guns to obtain that life estate.

The estate lost and the IRS  won. Under Hamilton’s Third Theorem, there was a big check due.

What do I see here? There was a tax flub, but I suspect that the underlying issue was non-tax related. Likely Ms Belmont expected to outlive her brother, especially if he was disabled. It did not occur to her to plan for the contingency that she might pass away first, or that he might contest a life estate in the house where he took care of their mom up to her death while his sister was in Ohio.

The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author(s). Core Compass’s Terms Of Use applies.

About the author

Steven D. Hamilton is a career CPA, with extensive experience involving all aspects of tax practice, including sophisticated income tax planning and handling of tax controversy matters for closely-held businesses and high-income individuals.

Federal estate taxestate taxesestate fiduciaryincome distributionset asidelife estateCalifornia
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