Most people don't think much about capital gains tax on the sale of a home, because the tax laws offer a capital gains exclusion of $250,000 to single filers and $500,000 to joint filers when they sell their main home. However, some people use estate planning strategies involving trusts to own their homes, and understanding the effect of having a home within a trust is crucial to make sure that you don't miss out on this key tax break. Below, we'll go into more detail about how to calculate capital gains tax on a house sold from a trust.

The key question: What kind of trust owns the home?
The tax laws treat various types of trusts differently. One key distinction is between revocable trusts and irrevocable trusts. If you have a revocable trust, then the tax laws treat that trust as what is known as a grantor trust. What that means is that even though the trust owns legal title to property contributed to the trust, including real estate, the trust assets are treated for tax purposes as if they still belong to the grantor, or the person who put the assets into the trust in the first place.

As a result, if you meet the tests for the capital gains exclusion, then you can claim the exclusion even if you own the home through a revocable trust. In general, to get the benefits of the exclusion, you need to have owned your home for at least two out of the five years prior to the date of sale, and you have to have lived in the property as your main home for at least two out of the past five years.

By contrast, the rules are much different for an irrevocable trust. Irrevocable trusts are separate legal entities, and so transferring your home to an irrevocable trust makes it impossible for you to claim the exclusion on capital gains. The proceeds from the sale of a home within an irrevocable trust typically stay within the trust, and the trust itself owes the resulting capital gains tax on the profit. Because tax brackets covering trusts are much smaller than those for individuals, you can quickly rise to the maximum 20% long-term capital gains rate with even modest profits on the sale of a home.

However, there is one aspect of an irrevocable trust that you should keep in mind. Often, revocable trusts become irrevocable after the person who created the trust dies. If the home was included in the estate of the deceased owner, then the property will get a step-up in tax basis. That means that even if the trust becomes irrevocable after the deceased owner's death, the trust won't have capital gain if it immediately sells the home. Only if the trust holds onto the property for a time after death will new gains have a chance to start accruing.

Trusts can be complicated, so it's important to know exactly what trust you're working with in a home-sale situation. With the right planning, you can often reach a tax result that will be advantageous to you.

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