Illinois Trust Taxation Deemed Unconstitutional

by McDermott Will & Emery

Ruling creates planning opportunities to minimize income taxes.

In Linn v. Department of Revenue, the Illinois Fourth District Appellate Court reviewed the state’s statutory framework for taxing trusts.  Linn v. Department of Revenue, 2013 Il App (4th) 121055.  On constitutional grounds, the court limited Illinois’ power to impose taxes under its “once subject to tax, forever subject to tax” regime.

This case creates planning opportunities to minimize Illinois income taxes.  However, it should be noted that the Linn case applies to trusts that pay Illinois income tax on trust dividends, interest, capital gains or other income retained by the trust and not distributed to a beneficiary.  This case does not apply to income distributed to an Illinois beneficiary; that income clearly can be taxed by Illinois. 

Illinois Trusts

Illinois trusts are subject to a 5 percent income tax plus a 1.5 percent personal property replacement tax.  A nonresident trust is subject to taxation only on income generated within Illinois or apportioned to the state.  Resident trusts, on the other hand, are subject to tax on all income, regardless of the source of that income.  For an individual, state income taxation on a resident basis generally requires domicile or residence within the taxing state.  With respect to a trust, one or more of the grantor, trustees and beneficiaries may have contacts with a state sufficient to uphold as constitutional a tax on all of the trust income.

Illinois defines a resident trust based solely on the domicile of the grantor. 35 ILCS 5/1501(a)(20).  A resident trust means:

  • A trust created by a will of a decedent who at death was domiciled in Illinois or
  • An irrevocable trust, the grantor of which was domiciled in Illinois at the time the trust became irrevocable.  For purposes of the statute, a trust is irrevocable when it’s no longer treated as a grantor trust under Sections 671 through 678 of the Internal Revenue Code.

The Illinois statute would forever tax the income generated by the trust property, regardless of the trust’s continuing connection to Illinois.  One can analogize the Illinois statute to a hypothetical statute providing that any person born in Illinois to resident parents is deemed an Illinois resident and subject to Illinois taxation no matter where that person eventually resides or earns income.  Many lawyers believe that the Illinois statute is unconstitutional.


Linn involved a trust established in 1961 by A.N. Pritzker, an Illinois resident.  The trust was initially administered under Illinois law by trustees who lived in Illinois.  In 2002, the trustee exercised a power granted in the trust instrument to distribute the trust property to a new trust (the Texas Trust).  Although the Texas Trust generally provided for administration under Texas law, certain provisions of the trust instrument continued to be interpreted under Illinois law.  The Texas Trust was subsequently modified by a Texas court to eliminate all references to Illinois law, and the trustee filed the Texas Trust’s 2006 Illinois tax return as a nonresident.  At that time:

  • No current trust beneficiary resided in Illinois;
  • No trustee or other trust officeholder resided in Illinois;
  • All trust assets were located outside Illinois; and
  • Illinois law wasn’t referred to in the modified trust instrument

The Illinois Department of Revenue (the IDR) asserted that the trust was a resident trust for 2006 and that, as such, the trust pay Illinois income tax on all income.  The trustee countered that the imposition of Illinois tax under these circumstances was unconstitutional as a violation of the due process clause and the commerce clause.  The court held the statute was unconstitutional based on due process grounds (not reaching the commerce clause arguments), and stated that the following are the requirements for a statute to sustain a due process challenge:  (1) a minimum connection must exist between the state and the person, property or transaction it seeks to tax during the period in issue and (2) the income attributed to the state for tax purposes must be rationally related to values with the taxing state.  Quill Corp. v. North Dakota, 504 U.S. 298, 306 (1992).

This was the first case in Illinois on this issue so the court cited cases from other jurisdictions, including Chase Manhattan Bank v. Gavin, 733 A. 2d 782 (Conn. 1999), McCulloch v. Franchise Tax Board, 390 P.2d 412 (Cal. 1964), Blue v. Department of Treasury, 462 N.W.2d 762 (Mich. Ct. App. 1990) and Mercantile-Safe Deposit & Trust Co. v. Murphy, 242 N.Y.S.2d 26 (N.Y. App. Div. 1963).  Gavin, which upheld the application of the Connecticut income tax on the undistributed income of a lifetime trust created by a Connecticut grantor, was cited at length by the court.  A critical fact in that case was that the beneficiary resided within the state for the year in question and the court assumed that the beneficiary would receive all trust property shortly.  In Linn, the court noted, there were no Illinois beneficiaries.  Relying on Blue and Mercantile, the court found that a grantor’s residence within a state isn’t itself enough to satisfy due process. 

The IDR argued that significant connections with Illinois existed, maintaining that the trust owed its existence to Illinois law and listing legal benefits Illinois provides to the trustees and beneficiaries. The IDR cited some cases that involved trusts created by a will (i.e., testamentary trusts).  The Illinois court disagreed with the testamentary trust cases the IDR relied on, finding that a lifetime trust’s connections with a state are more attenuated than in the case of a testamentary trust.  Further, the court found that the Texas Trust wasn’t created under Illinois law, but rather by a power granted to the trustees under the original trust instrument.  The court proceeded to dismiss the trust’s historical connections to Illinois and focused on contemporaneous connections, finding that “what happened historically with the trust in Illinois courts and under Illinois law has no bearing on the 2006 tax year.”  Linn at ¶30.  For 2006, the court concluded that the trust received the benefits and protections of Texas law, not Illinois law.

Steps to Consider

The IDR did not appeal the Linn decision to the Illinois Supreme Court.  We anticipate that additional cases will test and define the boundaries of the Linn decision.  Of course, Illinois might change its statute. For the time being, however, the Linn decision is binding authority for trustees of trusts that can eliminate all contact with Illinois.

Trustees of resident trusts with limited contacts to Illinois (in particular, those trusts without trustees, assets or non-contingent beneficiaries in Illinois) should consider the following issues.

  • Review state taxation:  The trustee should review connections to Illinois and consider whether actions could be taken to fall within the Linn holding.  Contacts with other states and those states’ rules for taxing trusts should also be reviewed.
  • File Illinois return with no tax due:  Pending guidance from the IDR, the trustee could consider filing an IL Form 1041, referencing the Linn case and reporting no tax due.  For each tax year, a tax return must be filed in order to commence the running of the statute of limitations.  An Illinois appellate court decision that supports the taxpayer’s position will ordinarily provide a basis for the abatement of tax penalties. 86 Ill. Admin Code Section 700.400(e)(8). However, if the facts are not exactly like those in Linn, a penalty cold be imposed on the trustee.  A safer method for trusts when the facts are not the same as in Linn would be to file and pay the Illinois tax in full but then file a claim for refund.  This should eliminate penalties but likely will result in a dispute with the IDR.
  • Amend prior tax returns:  The trustee could consider filing amended tax returns for prior years and claim a refund.  A trustee that has timely filed prior year tax returns may file an amended tax return at any time prior to the third anniversary of the due date of the tax return, including extensions.  For example, the 2010 tax year return may be amended at any time prior to October 15, 2014.

Other Considerations

Given the holding in Linn and uncertainty regarding trust tax law, trusts that offer flexibility and can adapt to changing circumstances may have a distinct advantage.

  • Officeholders:  Carefully consider the residency of trustees and other trust officeholders (such as investment advisers) and provisions regarding the appointment and removal of those officeholders.
  • Decanting provision:  Consider providing the trustee with broad authority to distribute trust property in further trust. 
  • Lifetime trusts:  While the legal basis for the continued income taxation of a testamentary trust may also be questionable, testamentary trusts can be avoided by creating lifetime trusts.
  • Situs and administration:  Consider establishing and administering the trust in a state that doesn’t assess an income tax against trust income.
  • Governing law:  Consider including trust provisions that allow the trustee to elect the laws of another state to govern the trust. 
  • Discretionary dispositive provisions:  Consider including discretionary rather than mandatory trust distribution provisions, as some states may tax a trust based on the residence of beneficiaries with non-contingent trust interests. 
  • Division provisions:  Consider including provisions authorizing a trustee to divide a trust without altering trust dispositive provisions.  This type of provision may allow a trustee to divide a trust into separate trusts and isolate the elements of a trust attracting state taxation.  For example, a trust may simply be divided into two separate trusts, one trust for the benefit of a child and his descendants that live in Illinois and a second trust that might not be subject to Illinois taxation, for a child and his descendants that don’t live in Illinois.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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