Gifting for Estate Taxes

In honor of this festive season, I wanted to talk about gifting.  If you’ve read my blogs in the past you probably aware that there may be tax consequences to gifts, and that there have been many discussed changes to the estate and gift tax in this past year.  However, clients frequently ask questions about it, especially at the end of the year, so I wanted to address gifting and potential estate planning considerations.  You can also see the recent article “Gift money now, before estate tax laws sunset in 2025” from The Press-Enterprise for a bit more detail and some additional considerations.

Gifts may be used to decrease the taxes due on an estate, but require thoughtful planning with an eye to avoiding any unintended consequences.

The first gift tax exemption is the annual exemption. Basically, anyone can give anyone else a gift of up to $15,000 every year. If giving together, spouses may gift $30,000 a year.  Couples often make gifts to children and include their child’s spouse as a recipient, which effectively means you can gift $60,000 (two donors giving $15,000 a piece to two people) within the annual gift tax exemption.  After these amounts, the gift is subject to gift tax. However, there’s another exemption: the lifetime exemption.

For now, the estate and gift tax exemption is $11.7 million per person.  Many legislative proposals this year considered reducing that exemption substantially, but currently anyone can gift up to that amount during life or at death, or some combination, tax-free. The exemption amount is adjusted every year. If no changes to the law are made, this will increase to roughly $12,060,000 in 2022.

However, the current estate and gift tax exemption law sunsets in 2025, if not earlier as many are predicting.  This will bring the exemption down from historically high levels to the prior level of $5 million. Even with an adjustment for inflation, this would make the exemption about $6.2 million in 2025.

For households with net worth below $6 million for an individual and $12 million for a married couple, federal estate taxes may be less of a worry. However, there are state estate taxes, and some are tied to federal estate tax rates. Planning is necessary, especially as some in Congress would like to see those levels set even lower.

Let’s look at a fictional couple with a combined net worth of $30 million. Without any estate planning or gifting, if they live past 2025, they may have a taxable estate of $18 million: $30 million minus $12 million. At a taxable rate of 40%, their tax bill will be $7.2 million.

If the couple had gifted the maximum $23.4 million now under the current exemption, their taxable estate would be reduced to $6.6 million, with a tax bill of $2,520,000. Even if they were to die in a year when the exemption is lower than it was at the time of their gift, they’d save nearly $5 million in taxes.

Now, I want to stress because gifting is often abused, that this analysis affects individuals who may become estate taxable.  If you are a married couple with $2,000,000 in total assets, gifting doesn’t make tax sense, and may have adverse consequences elsewhere.

For example, gifting affects Medicaid eligibility, which is relevant to far more people than federal gift and estate tax.  Medicaid penalizes transfers made for less than full value (so gifts as well as transfers made at a discount such as sales for a $1, sales at cost and so on), so gifting the $15,000 isn’t prudent.  Beside that point, sometimes clients simply need the money later in life for their own use to enjoy retirement, which is the best plan of all.

There are also other taxes to consider in making gifts where estate taxes aren’t concerning, such as capital gains tax.  See this article for more information on those topics.  https://www.galliganmanning.com/is-it-better-to-give-or-let-kids-inherit/ 

That said, there are a number of estate planning gifting techniques used to leverage giving, including some which provide income streams to the donor, while allowing the donor to maintain control of assets. These include:

Grantor Retained Annuity Trusts. The donor transfers assets to the trust and retains right to a payment over a period of time. At the end of that period, beneficiaries receive the assets and all of the appreciation. The donor pays income tax on the earnings of the assets in the trust, permitting another tax-free transfer of assets.

Intentionally Defective Grantor Trusts. A donor sets up a trust, makes a gift of assets and then sells other assets to the trust in exchange for a promissory note. If this is done correctly, there is a minimal gift, no gain on the sale for tax purposes, the donor pays the income tax and appreciation is moved to the next generation.  Congress has definitely considered shutting this down, but hasn’t to date.

These strategies may continue to be scrutinized as Congress searches for funding sources so they may not be perfect strategies or available in the future, but in the meantime, they are still available and may be appropriate for your estate. Speak with an experienced estate planning attorney to see if these or other strategies should be put into place.

Reference: The Press-Enterprise (Nov. 7, 2021) “Gift money now, before estate tax laws sunset in 2025”

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Does Your State Have an Estate or Inheritance Tax?

There is a lot of focus recently on the federal estate and gift tax and the potential for changes due, and rightly so.  The tax rate is 40% of amounts gifted and left at your death above the exemption amount, which is likely to go down.  But, what a lot of people don’t consider is that some states have their own estate taxes, and in a few cases, inheritance tax.  Texas has neither, but I thought a blog on state estate and inheritance taxes would be a good follow-up to my recent blog on issues to consider when moving to a new state.  See that here:  https://www.galliganmanning.com/should-you-update-your-estate-plan-if-you-move-to-a-new-state/

Although it has fallen out of favor recently, many states still have either an estate tax, inheritance tax or some combination.  According to The Tax Foundation’s recent article entitled “Does Your State Have an Estate or Inheritance Tax?”  17 states and the District of Columbia all apply some or both of these taxes.  Hawaii and the State of Washington have the highest estate tax rates in the nation at 20%, and there are 8 states and DC that are next that apply a top rate of 16%. Massachusetts and Oregon have the lowest exemption levels at $1 million, and Connecticut has the highest exemption level at $7.1 million.    For the New York readers, the estate tax exemption is at nearly $6 million and applies rates from about 3% up to 16% depending on how far you exceed the exemption.

6 states have inheritance taxes.  Inheritance taxes, unlike estate taxes, apply a tax rate based relationship of the decedent to the beneficiary, meaning it applies even if the estate is relatively small.  Nebraska has the highest top rate at 18%, and Maryland has the lowest top rate at 10%. All 6 of these states exempt spouses, and some fully or partially exempt immediate relatives.  For you Pennsylvania readers, this could be anywhere from 0% to spouse and 15% to individuals who aren’t close family members.

Estate taxes are paid by the decedent’s estate, prior to asset distribution to the heirs. The tax is imposed on the overall value of the estate less the exemption applicable to that state. Inheritance taxes may be due from either the estate or the recipient of a bequest and are based on the amount distributed to each beneficiary.

As I mentioned earlier, most states have been steering away from estate or inheritance taxes or have upped their exemption levels because estate taxes without the federal exemption hurt a state’s competitiveness. Delaware repealed its estate tax at the start of 2018, and New Jersey finished its phase out of its estate tax at the same time, though it still applies its inheritance tax.

Connecticut still is phasing in an increase to its estate exemption. They plan to mirror the federal exemption by 2023. However, as the exemption increases, the minimum tax rate also increases. In 2020, rates started at 10%, while the lowest rate in 2021 is 10.8%. Connecticut’s estate tax will have a flat rate of 12% by 2023.

In Vermont, they’re still phasing in an estate exemption increase. They are upping the exemption to $5 million on January 1, compared to $4.5 million in 2020.

DC has gone in the opposite direction. The District has dropped its estate tax exemption from $5.8 million to $4 million in 2021, but at the same time decreased its bottom rate from 12% to 11.2%.

So, it is of course a good idea to consider reviewing your estate plan when relocating, but especially if you move to states that have estate or inheritance tax.  Talk to an experienced estate planning attorney about how estate and inheritance taxes affect you in your new state.

Reference: The Tax Foundation (Feb. 24, 2021) “Does Your State Have an Estate or Inheritance Tax?”

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Is Transferring the House to Children a Good Idea?

Clients frequently ask this question, especially as mom or dad is aging and perhaps living in assisted living or some other senior care arrangement.  Many try to do so using online forms, and find later that it was a mistake.  Transferring your house to your children while you’re alive may avoid probate, but gifting a home also can mean a rather large and unnecessary tax bill or could effect eligibility for long term care benefits. It also may place your house at risk, if your children get sued or file for bankruptcy

You also could be making a mistake, if you hope it will help keep the house from being consumed by nursing home bills.

There are better ways to transfer a house to your children, as well as a little-known potential fix that may help even if the giver has since died, says Considerable’s recent article entitled “Should you transfer your house to your adult kids?”

If a parent signs a quitclaim to give her son the house and then dies, it can potentially mean a tax bill of thousands of dollars for the son.

Families who see this error in time can undo the damage, by gifting the house back to the parent.

People will also transfer a home to try to qualify for Medicaid, but any gifts or transfers made within five years of applying for Medicaid can result in a penalty period when seniors are disqualified from receiving benefits.  A capable elder law attorney can advise you on better ways to address this, as well as potential corrections if necessary.

In addition, transferring your home to another person can expose you to their financial problems because their creditors could file liens on your home and, depending on state law, take some or most of its value. If the child divorces, the house could become an asset that must be divided as part of the marital estate.

Section 2036 of the Internal Revenue Code says that if the parent were to retain a “life interest” in the property, which includes the right to continue living there, the home would remain in her estate rather than be considered a completed gift. However, there are rules for what constitutes a life interest, including the power to determine what happens to the property and liability for its bills.

There are other ways to avoid probate. Many states and DC permit “transfer on death” deeds that let homeowners transfer their homes at death without probate.  Texas has both transfer on death deeds and “Lady Bird Deeds,” and an attorney can advise you on the differences and the best way to utilize them with your estate plan.  An excellent solution is to use a living trust which allows assets it owns or receives at death to avoid probate.  Having the trust own the property, or possibly using a deed to convey the property to the the trust at death, are excellent solutions.

If you are interested in learning more, please see this article for various ways to own and hold real estate.  https://www.galliganmanning.com/how-to-own-your-real-estate/  

In sum, there are many unexpected consequences to transferring your home to your children, so it is important to discuss the best way to convey the home to your loved ones with an attorney.

Reference: Considerable (Sep. 18) “Should you transfer your house to your adult kids?”

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