Annual income distributions by family discretionary trusts (FDTs) are routine for trustees for apparent Australian income tax reasons but trustees of FDTs can be reluctant to distribute trust capital. What would be the reason for that reluctance? Why don’t trustees of FDTs make capital distributions more often?
The trust deed
The regime in a FDT deed typically centres on distribution of capital on the vesting of the FDT. However even older and archaic FDT deeds usually expressly allow for interim distribution of capital, that is, distribution of trust capital before the FDT vests and winds up. Interim distribution of capital to beneficiaries, rather than holding it for them until the vesting day, is often conditional on the distribution being for the “maintenance education advancement in life or benefit” either for infant beneficiaries or for beneficiaries generally – see Fischer v Nemeske Pty. Ltd.  HCA 11: a condition which, in ordinary family dealings, can readily be met.
Purpose of a FDT
A FDT is, in its essence, an arrangement to benefit family members. A FDT can be seen as a pool set aside to gift to family members. But is a distribution to a family beneficiary from a FDT treated the same for tax as a family gift to a family member?
It is useful to think about differences between a FDT and other types of entities before answering that:
Difference to a proprietary company
A proprietary company has the legal status of a separate person and the release of company capital to a shareholder of a company is subject to a number of corporations law and tax technicalities. A company can have wide objects but giving its value away to other persons would not usually be one of them. Under tax rules the enrichment of a shareholder’s family member from a company’s capital is likely dividend income assessable to income tax either directly or as a “payment” under section 109C of the Income Tax Assessment Act 1936.
Difference to a unit trust
A trustee of a genuine unit trust would generally be required to make capital distributions in equal proportions based on the unit holdings of unit holders. If capital distributions from a unit trust are feasible the capital gains tax (CGT) rules can discourage the trustee from making these distributions before vesting. CGT event E4 applies to distributions of capital of a unit trust which are not in connection with the disposal of the units to reduce the cost base of the unit holder by the amount of the distribution and, to the extent the cost base doesn’t cover the amount of the distribution, the excess is a capital gain assessable to unit holders.
How CGT applies to distributions of capital by FDTs
CGT event E4 does not apply to non-assessable capital distributions from a FDT. In Taxation Determination TD 2003/28 Income tax: capital gains: does CGT event E4 in section 104-70 of the Income Tax Assessment Act 1997 happen if the trustee of a discretionary trust makes a non-assessable payment to: (a) a mere object; or (b) a default beneficiary? the Commissioner of Taxation confirms his longstanding view and practice, since the introduction of CGT in 1986, that CGT event E4 does not happen if a trustee of a discretionary trust makes a non-assessable payment to a mere object. That is, a mere discretionary beneficiary where the entitlement to the payment arose because the trustee exercised its discretion in the beneficiary’s favour and the interest was not acquired by the beneficiary for consideration or by way of assignment.
The CGT similarity of FDT cash distributions and cash gifts
The enrichment of a family beneficiary of a FDT by an interim distribution of the capital of a FDT is not, of itself, subject to CGT based on TD 2003/28 i.e. there is no CGT on a distribution of cash to a beneficiary from the capital of a FDT. If there is a distribution of a CGT asset from the capital of a FDT to a beneficiary that is a different story. CGT events E5 and E7 can apply to subject the realisation of the CGT asset by the FDT to a family beneficiary to CGT. But there is no fundamental difference between a distribution of a CGT asset from the capital of a FDT, and the CGT events that apply to it, and how a family gift of a CGT asset by an individual is treated for CGT. That is, a gift of cash is CGT free and a gift in the form of property that is a CGT asset is subjected to CGT: not because of the gift but because a CGT asset is being realised and the CGT regime brings gains in value on a CGT asset to tax on a change of ownership.
So cash distributions of capital by a FDT, where permissible under a trust deed of a FDT, can generally occur, either with income year end income distributions or at other times during the currency of a FDT, without income tax consequences.
However there is a problematic exception:
Small business CGT concessions participation percentage
Under item 2 in the table in section 152-70 of the Income Tax Assessment Act 1997 the “small business participation percentage” of a beneficiary of a FDT is the smaller of the percentages of the beneficiary’s entitlement to income and the beneficiary’s entitlement to capital in an income year if both income distributions and capital distributions are made in that year. Generally beneficiaries are better off qualifying for a sufficient small business participation percentage to qualify for the concessions if no distribution of capital, or no divergent distribution of capital (bearing in mind that a capital gain on an active asset distributed by a FDT is likely to have a capital component), has been made in the income year the relevant capital gain has been made in to some other beneficiary.
So if a capital gain arises to a FDT in an income year which can attract the small business CGT concessions in Division 152 of that Act, then a distribution of the income in that income year substantially to family member A, including entitlement to a capital gain, may not count or count sufficiently in the measurement of small business participation percentage where a cash distribution of capital has been made to family member B and not family member A who is left with a “smaller” participation percentage. It could be that family member A may thus not qualify as a significant individual or as a CGT concession stakeholder without the sufficient interest in capital distributions of the FDT in the relevant income year in which the capital gain was made.
So a trustee of FDT needs to be wary of cash distributions of capital from a FDT and, indeed, the streaming of capital gains where there has been a capital gain that can attract the small business CGT concessions to ensure that the desired beneficiaries have sufficient entitlements to capital that can attract the concessions. If the small business CGT concessions participation percentage is not in issue a cash distribution from from the capital of a FDT to a beneficiary can be a tax benign.