Why Two State Trust Cases Have Escalated to the SCOTUS and What That Could Mean for Estate Planning

BREAKING NEWS from the Supreme Court in Washington D.C. While much of the estate planning community is at the Heckerling conference in Orlando, the U.S. Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) decided on Friday to grant a writ of certiorari in The Kimberley Rice Kaestner 1992 Family Trust v. North Carolina Department of Revenue case.

The Cases Broken Down

The crux of the Kaestner case is whether the state of North Carolina should be able to constitutionally tax trusts where the only connection to the state is that the beneficiary is a resident. In the state of North Carolina, the taxpayer won throughout the entire court system, but the state appealed successfully to the US Supreme Court.

Another similar case, Fielding v. Commissioner of Revenue, is being appealed to the SCOTUS with taxpayer response due on January 21st. The facts of the Fielding case are broader than the Kaestner case, so the outcome is of interest to the greater estate planning community. The Fielding case addresses whether the state can tax a trust where the grantor was a resident of a ate during the creation of the trust, and one beneficiary was a Minnesota resident, but there are no other ties to the state of Minnesota within the trust itself.

Like Kaestner, Fielding won in the Minnesota state courts, and the state appealed to the SCOTUS.

It has been decades since the SCOTUS has addressed the state taxation of trusts. However, there are quite a few cases beyond the Kaestner case with address state trust taxation, including:

  • McCulloch v. Franchise Tax board (Calif, 1964)
  • Taylor v. State Tax Commissioner (N.Y. 1981)
  • Pennoyer v. Taxation Div. Dir. (N.J. 1983)
  • Potter v. Taxation Div. Dir. (N.J. 1983)
  • In re Swift (Mo. 1987)
  • Blue v. Department of Treasury (Mich. 1990)
  • Westfall v. Director of Revenue (Mo. 1991)
  • 1992, Quill Corporation v. North Dakota. (1992)
  • District of Columbia v. Chase Manhattan Bank (1997)
  • Chase Manhattan Bank v. Gavin 1999
  • South Dakota v. Wayfair 2018

Constitutional Issues

Three older U.S. Supreme Court cases all dating before 1947 addressed the constitutional issues with state taxation. Safe Deposit and Trust Company v. Virginia held that the Due Process Clause prohibits a state from taxing a trust based on the residence of beneficiaries.

In Guaranty Trust Co. v. Virginia the court held that Virginia could tax residence beneficiaries on distributions they received from a non-resident trust.

Greenough v. Tax Assessors of Newport held that the Due Process Clause did not prevent the city of Newport from imposing a personal property tax on a resident trustee of an otherwise non-resident trust.

It is probably unconstitutional for a state to tax an otherwise non-resident trust solely because the guarantor was a resident. However, if that state’s court system is utilized, for example, because of a probate proceeding in that state, chances are better than the state does have authority to tax the trust.

The trust industry is keenly following the Kaestner and Fielding cases, and it will be interesting to see whether they are heard together or separately in the SCOTUS, presuming the court will also hear the Fielding case.

Alliance Trust Company is following both cases closely and will provide updates as new developments arise.

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