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Taxation of Trusts in South Africa

Taxation of trusts in South Africa is a critical aspect of managing these legal entities, both for financial planning and legal compliance. This introduction delves into the nuances of how trusts are taxed within the country, exploring not only the applicable tax rates but also the implications for trustees and beneficiaries. Understanding these tax laws is essential for anyone involved in personal financial planning or managing a trust. Whether you're establishing a new trust or overseeing an existing one, staying informed about your tax obligations is crucial for effective management and planning.

How is a Trust Taxed in South Africa?

In South Africa, the way a trust is taxed depends on several factors including the type of trust and how it is administered. Here’s a breakdown of the key points regarding the taxation of trusts:

  1. Type of Trust:
    • Testamentary Trusts: These are trusts created as per the will of a deceased person and they generally benefit from some income tax concessions especially when the beneficiaries are minors.
    • Inter-Vivos (Living) Trusts: These are set up by an individual during their lifetime. They do not benefit from any special tax concessions and are taxed at a higher rate on income retained within the trust.
  2. Income Tax:
    • Trusts are taxed at a flat rate of 45% on their income. This is higher than the rates applicable to individuals. If income generated by the trust assets is distributed to the beneficiaries, then it is taxed in the hands of the beneficiaries at their respective personal income tax rates.
    • It is important to note that distributions to beneficiaries are treated as taxable income by the beneficiaries but receive a deduction in the calculation of the trust's taxable income.
  3. Capital Gains Tax (CGT):
    • Trusts also pay Capital Gains Tax on any profits made from the disposal of assets. The inclusion rate for capital gains is 36% for trusts, which is higher than the rate for individuals. This effectively means that capital gains are taxed at a rate of 18% (50% of the 36% inclusion rate).
    • Similar to income tax, if capital gains are distributed to the beneficiaries, then these gains are taxed in the hands of the beneficiaries and not the trust.
  4. Dividends Tax:
    • Trusts are subject to dividends tax at a rate of 20% on any dividends received. However, dividends distributed to South African resident beneficiaries are exempt from dividends tax in the hands of the trust.
  5. Deductions and Exemptions:
    • Trusts can claim certain deductions for expenses incurred in the production of income. However, it is crucial to carefully manage and document these expenses to ensure they are indeed deductible.
  6. Tax Filing:
    • Trusts are required to file annual tax returns and are subject to the same provisional tax rules as companies. Ensuring accurate and timely tax filing is critical to avoid penalties and interest.

Effective tax planning is essential for trusts, particularly due to the high tax rates applicable to retained income and capital gains. Trustees should consider consulting with professionals in tax planning and personal financial planning to navigate the complexities of trust taxation and to optimize the financial benefits for the beneficiaries.

taxation of trusts in south africa

Why are Trusts Taxed?

Trusts are taxed in South Africa for several key reasons that align with broader fiscal policies and regulatory frameworks. Here’s a breakdown of why the taxation of trusts is an integral part of the financial system:

  1. Revenue Generation for the Government:
    • One of the primary reasons for taxing trusts, as with other entities, is to generate revenue for the government. This revenue is crucial for funding public services and infrastructure, which benefits the wider community.
  2. Prevention of Tax Evasion:
    • Trusts could potentially be used as vehicles for tax evasion or avoidance if not properly regulated and taxed. High net-worth individuals might transfer significant amounts of assets to trusts to benefit from lower tax rates or to shield assets from tax. By taxing trusts at a higher rate, especially on retained income and capital gains, the government discourages the use of trusts for merely tax avoidance purposes.
  3. Equity and Fairness:
    • Taxing trusts ensures a level of fairness in the tax system by making sure that all forms of income are taxed. If trusts were not taxed, they could create a loophole allowing individuals to divert income through trusts to escape or significantly reduce tax liabilities. This would place a greater tax burden on less wealthy individuals who cannot afford to set up and maintain trusts.
  4. Economic and Social Objectives:
    • The government uses taxation as a tool to meet economic and social objectives. For example, trusts are often set up to manage family wealth, provide for dependents, or support charitable causes. The tax policies surrounding trusts are designed to encourage these practices while ensuring they contribute fairly to the economy.
  5. Regulatory Compliance:
    • Taxation also serves as a mechanism for regulatory compliance. It compels trusts to maintain accurate records and adhere to legal standards, which helps in regulating and monitoring the flow of money and assets within the economy. This is crucial for maintaining financial stability and preventing illegal activities such as money laundering.
  6. Encouraging Beneficiary Distributions:
    • By imposing higher taxes on income retained within the trust, the tax system encourages trustees to distribute income to beneficiaries, where it might be taxed at lower individual rates. This helps in the circulation of wealth and can potentially lead to a more equitable distribution of income across the society.

In essence, the taxation of trusts in South Africa is structured to balance the need for government revenue with the objectives of economic equity, social welfare, and regulatory compliance. For individuals and entities managing trusts, understanding these tax obligations is crucial for compliance and strategic financial planning. Engaging with professionals in financial planning and tax advisory services can provide guidance and help optimize tax responsibilities and benefits.

What is the CGT Rate for Trusts in South Africa?

In South Africa, the Capital Gains Tax (CGT) rate for trusts is notably higher than for individuals. Trusts are subject to a CGT inclusion rate of 80%. This means that 80% of the total capital gain realized by the trust is included in its taxable income.

To calculate the effective CGT rate:

  • The inclusion rate for trusts is 80%.
  • With the current trust income tax rate at 45%, the effective CGT rate for trusts is 36% (80% of 45%).

This rate is designed to manage the tax implications of potentially large capital gains accruing in trusts, which often hold and manage substantial property and investment portfolios over long periods. This high rate also serves to discourage the use of trusts solely for tax avoidance purposes on capital gains.

For trustees and individuals involved in managing or setting up trusts, it’s important to consider the impact of these higher tax rates on investment decisions and estate planning. Consulting with tax professionals can provide strategies to manage or mitigate the tax liabilities associated with capital gains in trusts, ensuring both compliance and optimization of financial benefits for the trust and its beneficiaries.

How do Trusts Save on Tax?

Trusts can be used as effective tools for tax planning in South Africa, offering several strategies to potentially reduce tax liabilities for the settlor and beneficiaries. Here are some of the ways trusts can save on tax:

  1. Income Splitting:
    • Trusts can distribute income among multiple beneficiaries who may be in lower income tax brackets. By doing so, the overall tax burden on the income generated by the trust’s assets can be reduced, as each beneficiary's share might fall below the threshold for lower tax rates or use up their tax-free allowances.
  2. Estate Planning and Avoidance of Estate Duty:
    • When assets are transferred to a trust, they no longer form part of the individual’s estate. Therefore, these assets are not subject to estate duty upon the death of the settlor. This can result in significant tax savings, especially given the high rate of estate duty in South Africa, which is 20% on the first 30 million ZAR and 25% on amounts above that.
  3. Capital Gains Tax (CGT) Management:
    • Although trusts are taxed at a higher rate for CGT (36%), distributing capital gains to beneficiaries can result in lower tax rates if the beneficiaries are taxed at lower personal rates. This allows for the capital gains to be taxed in the hands of the beneficiaries who might have unused capital gains tax thresholds or lower inclusion rates.
  4. Deductions and Exemptions:
    • Trusts can claim certain expenses related to the management and maintenance of trust property. These expenses can be deducted from the trust’s taxable income, reducing the overall tax liability. Furthermore, trusts can make tax-efficient investments that come with allowable deductions, credits, or exemptions.
  5. Protection from Creditors:
    • While not a direct tax saving, protecting assets from creditors can have financial benefits. Assets held within a trust are generally protected from the claims of creditors in the case of bankruptcy or legal judgments against the settlor or beneficiaries. This ensures that the assets can continue to generate returns, which are taxed favorably within the trust structure.
  6. Conduit Principle:
    • South Africa’s tax law allows for the conduit principle, where certain types of income (like dividends and capital gains) and their associated tax characteristics can flow through a trust to beneficiaries without being taxed at the trust level. This principle can be utilized to ensure that income and gains are taxed in the hands of beneficiaries at potentially lower rates.

It’s important to note that while trusts offer potential tax advantages, they must be set up and used correctly to comply with tax laws and avoid being seen as mere tax avoidance schemes. The South African Revenue Service (SARS) scrutinizes trusts closely to ensure they are used for legitimate purposes and not solely for tax benefits. Therefore, consulting with tax professionals and financial advisors is crucial when considering a trust as part of your tax planning strategy.

What is the Best Trust to Save on Taxes?

The "best" trust for saving on taxes in South Africa depends largely on your specific financial goals, the nature of your assets, and your personal or family circumstances. Here are a few types of trusts commonly used in South Africa, each offering different tax advantages under certain conditions:

1. Discretionary Trusts

  • Best For: Individuals looking to have flexibility in how the trust’s income and capital are distributed among the beneficiaries.
  • Tax Advantages: Trustees can decide each year which beneficiaries receive income or capital, allowing for efficient tax planning. Income can be distributed to beneficiaries who are in lower tax brackets, potentially reducing the overall tax liability. The income distributed to beneficiaries is taxed at their personal income tax rates, which can be lower than the trust’s tax rate of 45%.

2. Vested Trusts

  • Best For: Individuals who want specific beneficiaries to receive income or capital gains from the trust as dictated by the trust deed.
  • Tax Advantages: In a vested trust, beneficiaries may have predetermined rights to the income or capital gains of the trust, and these can be taxed directly in their hands. This setup avoids the higher flat tax rate of 45% that would apply if the income were taxed in the trust.

3. Special Trusts

  • Type A: Created for the benefit of a person(s) with a disability who is unable to earn enough money for their care or who is incapable of managing their own finances.
  • Type B: Testamentary trusts created solely for the beneficiaries who are relatives of the deceased and are alive on the date of death (including minors).
  • Tax Advantages: Special trusts are taxed on a sliding scale similar to individuals, which can result in significant tax savings compared to the flat rate for ordinary trusts. This makes them particularly advantageous for managing inheritance for minors or disabled individuals.

4. Inter-Vivos Trusts

  • Best For: Individuals looking to manage their affairs during their lifetime, including tax planning and asset protection.
  • Tax Advantages: Although taxed at higher rates, careful planning with distributions can utilize beneficiaries’ lower tax rates. Also, by holding assets in a trust, you may reduce estate duty as the assets in the trust are not considered part of your personal estate at death.


  • Tax Compliance and Avoidance Concerns: It's important to ensure that the trust is compliant with South African tax laws. The South African Revenue Service (SARS) has stringent rules to prevent tax avoidance through trusts. Trusts must be structured and operated transparently to avoid penalties and scrutiny from tax authorities.
  • Professional Guidance: Due to the complexities associated with trusts and tax implications, it’s crucial to consult with tax professionals and financial advisors. They can provide personalized advice based on your financial situation and help navigate the complex regulatory environment.

When choosing the best trust to save on taxes, consider not only the immediate tax benefits but also long-term financial security, estate planning goals, and the financial needs of the beneficiaries. A well-planned trust structure tailored to your specific situation can offer significant tax advantages while ensuring compliance and fulfilling your fiduciary responsibilities.

Olemera – Financial and Tax Planning South Africa

For those seeking to optimize their tax strategies through trusts or require expert guidance in managing trust structures, Olemera offers professional financial planning services tailored to your unique needs. Our team of skilled financial advisors in Johannesburg is equipped to help you navigate the complexities of trust taxation effectively.

To safeguard your assets and ensure your financial legacy, contact Olemera and schedule a consultation.

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