Unlike a mutual fund, a UIT is created for a specific length of time and is a fixed portfolio, meaning that the UIT’s securities will not be sold or new ones bought, except in certain limited situations (for instance, when a company is filing for bankruptcy or the sale is required due to a merger).
Stock trusts are generally designed to provide capital appreciation and/or dividend income. They usually issue as many units (shares) as necessary for a set period of time before their primary offering period closes. Equity trusts have a set termination date, on which the trust liquidates and distributes its net asset value as proceeds to the unitholders. (The unitholders may then have special options for the reinvestment of this principal).
Bond trusts issue a set number of units, and when they are all sold to investors, the trust's primary offering period is closed. Bond trusts pay monthly income, often in relatively consistent amounts, until the first bond in the trust is called or matures. When this occurs, the funds from the redemption are distributed to the clients via a pro rata return of principal. The trust then continues paying the new monthly income amount until the next bond is redeemed. This continues until all the bonds have been liquidated out of the trust. Bond trusts are generally appropriate for clients seeking current income and stability of principal.
A UIT may be constituted as either a Regulated Investment Corporation (RIC) or a Grantor Trust. A RIC is a corporation in which investors are joint owners. A Grantor Trust, in contrast, grants investors proportional ownership in the underlying securities.
A UIT is created by a document called the Trust Indenture. This document is drafted by the Sponsor of the fund, and names the Trustee and the Evaluator. By US law, the Sponsor and the Trustee may not be the same. The sponsor selects and assembles the securities to be included in the fund. The trustee keeps the securities, maintains unitholder records, and performs all accounting and tax reporting for the portfolio. The largest issuer of UITs is First Trust Portfolios. Other sponsors include Van Kampen, Advisor's Asset Management and Claymore Securities. Most large brokerage firms (such as Merrill Lynch and A. G. Edwards) sell UITs created by these sponsors.
From a tax perspective, UIT's offer a shelter from the unrealized capital gains taxes typical inside of a mutual fund. Because individual UIT's are assembled and purchased for specific periods of time, the cost basis consists of the initial purchase price of the securities held in the trust. A mutual fund on the other hand, taxes the individual based on the entire previous tax year regardless of the date purchased. An investor could, for example, purchase a mutual fund in October, absorb a loss during the last quarter of the year, and yet still be taxed on capital gains within the fund depending on the overall performance of the underlying securities from January 1 of the current year. A UIT avoids this potential tax consequence by assembling an entirely new "fund" for each individual investor.
Some exchange-traded funds (ETFs) are technically classified as UITs: however, ETFs usually do not have set portfolios (they are either managed or update automatically to follow an index), and they do not have defined lives.