36.3 Factors Affecting Estates and Trusts

Learning Objectives

  1. Know how principal and income are distinguished in administering a trust.
  2. Explain how estates and trusts are taxed, and the utility of powers of appointment.

Principal and Income

Often, one person is to receive income from a trust or an estate and another person, the remainderman, is to receive the remaining property when the trust or estate is terminated. In thirty-six states, a uniform act, the Uniform Principal and Income Act (UPIA), defines principal and income and specifies how expenses are to be paid. If the trust agreement expressly gives the trustee power to determine what is income and what is principal, then his decision is usually unreviewable. If the agreement is silent, the trustee is bound by the provisions of the UPIA.

The general rule is that ordinary receipts are income, whereas extraordinary receipts are additions to principal. Ordinary receipts are defined as the return of money or property derived from the use of the principal, including rent, interest, and cash dividends. Extraordinary receipts include stock dividends, revenues or other proceeds from the sale or exchange of trust assets, proceeds from insurance on assets, all income accrued at the testator’s death, proceeds from the sale or redemption of bonds, and awards or judgments received in satisfaction of injuries to the trust property. Expenses or obligations incurred in producing or preserving income—including ordinary repairs and ordinary taxes—are chargeable to income. Expenses incurred in making permanent improvements to the property, in investing the assets, and in selling or purchasing trust property are chargeable to principal, as are all obligations incurred before the decedent’s death.


Estates and trusts are taxable entities under the federal income tax statute. The general rule is that all income paid out to the beneficiaries is taxable to the beneficiaries and may be deducted from the trust’s or estate’s gross income in arriving at its net taxable income. The trust or estate is then taxed on the balance left over—that is, on any amounts accumulated. This is known as the conduit rule, because the trust or estate is seen as a conduit for the income.

Power of Appointment

A power of appointment is the authority given by one person (the donor) to another (the donee) to dispose of the donor’s property according to whatever instructions the donor provides. A power of appointment can be created in a will, in a trust, or in some other writing. The writing may imply the power of appointment rather than specifically calling it a power of appointment. For example, a devise or bequest of property to a person that allows that person to receive it or transfer it gives that person a power of appointment. The person giving the power is the donor, and the person receiving it is the donee.

There are three classes of powers of appointment. General powers of appointment give donees the power to dispose of the property in any way they see fit. Limited powers of appointment, also known as special powers of appointment, give donees the power to transfer the property to a specified class of persons identified in the instrument creating the power. Testamentary powers of appointment are powers of appointment that typically are created by wills.

If properly used, the power of appointment is an important tool, because it permits the donee to react flexibly to circumstances that the donor could not have foreseen. Suppose you desire to benefit your children when they are thirty-five or forty according to whether they are wealthy or poor. The poorer children will be given more from the estate or trust than the wealthier ones. Since you will not know when you write the will or establish the trust which children will be poorer, a donee with a power of appointment will be able to make judgments impossible for the donor to make years or decades before.

Key Takeaway

Administering either an estate or a trust requires knowing the distinction between principal and income in a variety of situations. For example, knowing which receipts are ordinary and which are extraordinary is essential to knowing whether to allocate the receipts as income or as an addition to principal. Knowing which expenses are chargeable to principal and which are chargeable to income is also important. Both estates and trusts are taxable entities, subject to federal and state laws on estate and trust taxation. Powers of appointment can be used in both trusts and estates in order to give flexibility to named donees.


  1. In his will, Hagrid leaves his pet dragon, Norberta, to Ron Weasley as donee with power of appointment. He intends to restrict Ron’s power as donee to give or sell Norberta only to wizards or witches. What kind of power of appointment should Hagrid use?
  2. In a testamentary trust, Baxter Black leaves Hilda Garde both real and personal property to administer as she sees fit as trustee “for the benefit of the Michigan Militia.” Hilda intends to sell the house, but meanwhile she rents it out at $1,200 a month and incurs repairs to the property to prepare it for sale in the amount of $4,328.45. Is the expense chargeable to income or principal? Is the rent to be characterized as ordinary receipts or extraordinary receipts?