What’s the Best Way to Go with Loans to Family?

Loans to family must be treated like real, enforceable loans to third parties if you don’t want to run afoul of gift and estate tax.

Loans are a terrific way for parents to foster a child’s independence, encourage responsibility and signal their confidence that their child can succeed on their own.  They also don’t use any of your lifetime gift tax exemption ($11.58 million per person).  But, loans to family highlight some important tax and family concerns you should be aware of.

Kiplinger’s recent article entitled “Gifts vs. Loans: Don’t Be Generous to a Fault” tells the story of Mary Bolles. The case illustrates that parents’ actions and expectations as to repayment of the loan can recharacterize the “loan” to a taxable “gift.” That can mean unintended gift tax consequences. Mary was the mother of five who made numerous loans to each of her children. She kept copious records of each loan and any repayments. Between 1985 and 2007, she loaned her son Peter about $1.06 million to support his business ventures — despite the fact that it soon was clear he wouldn’t be able to make any more payments on the loans. None of the loans to Peter was ever formally documented, and Mary never tried to enforce the collection of any of the loans.

In late 1989, Mary created a revocable living trust, which specifically excluded Peter from any distribution of her estate when she died. While she later amended her trust to no longer exclude him, she included a formula to account for the “loans” he received in making distributions to her children. After her death, the IRS said that the entire amount of the loans, plus accrued interest, was part of her estate. They assessed the estate with a tax deficiency of $1.15 million.  The estate said the entire amount was a gift.

At trial, the court considered the factors to be weighed in deciding whether the advances were loans or gifts. Noting that the determination depends not only on how the loan was structured and documented, the court also explained that in the case of a loan to family, a major factor is whether there was an actual expectation of repayment and intent to enforce the debt.

The court compromised and held that any advances prior to 1990 were loans (about $425,000), since the evidence suggested that Mary reasonably expected that Peter would repay the loans, until he was disinherited from her trust in late 1989. The court said that the money given to Peter after he was disinherited — from 1990 onward — were gifts.

The decision shows that if you’re considering taking advantage of the elevated gift tax exemption before it sunsets, review any outstanding family loan transactions. You should see the extent to which those loans may have been transmuted into gifts over the years—which may adversely impact the amount of your remaining available exemption. The safest way to do this would be to consult an experienced estate planning attorney, who can help you safely navigate these complex rules.

When making a gift there are other considerations.  If you will make such a loan, treat it as such.  Have a lawyer prepare a loan agreement.  Create a reasonable expectation that the loan will be repaid and that you’ll enforce it.  This isn’t just for tax reasons, it is to maintain family harmony.  Giving a “loan” to one child may not sit well with the others, so make sure it is honored.  You should also consider the impact this will have on state taxes, income taxes, and long-term care planning if relevant to you.

To be safe, follow these simple steps:

  1. Document the loan transaction between the lender and borrower.
  2. Charge interest based on the government rates (AFR), which are published monthly.
  3. Make sure the borrower will have enough net worth to likely repay the loan.
  4. Get a copy of the borrower’s financial statement.
  5. If the loan sets out periodic payments, make certain these are made on time.
  6. Report the interest income you receive from the borrower on your income tax return.

Make sure that you do any intra-family loans properly to avoid any future issues.

Reference: Kiplinger (Oct. 7, 2020) “Gifts vs. Loans: Don’t Be Generous to a Fault”

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What Exactly Is the Estate Tax?

Most people ignore the estate tax due to its high exemptions, but as some candidates may lower the exemption, it is good to familiarize yourself with it.

In the U.S., we treat the estate tax and gift tax as a single tax system with unified limits and tax rates—but it is not very well understood by many people.  Plus, the estate tax exemption is currently as high as it’s ever been, so many people ignore it assuming it doesn’t and never will apply to them.

However, the estate and gift tax has always been a political football, so it is a good idea to familiarize yourself with it in an election year.  The Motley Fool’s recent article entitled “What Is the Estate Tax in the United States?” gives us an overview of the U.S. estate and gift tax, including what assets are included, tax rates and exemptions in 2020.  As an overriding point, this blog covers federal estate and gift tax.  Some states have their own estate, gift and/or inheritance tax (tax on all transfers to beneficiaries at a lower rate) which may work differently then the federal tax.

The U.S. estate tax only impacts the wealthiest households. Let’s look at why that’s the case. Americans can exempt a certain amount of assets from their taxable estate—the lifetime exemption. This amount is modified every year to keep pace with inflation and according to policy modifications. This year, the lifetime exemption is $11.58 million per person. Therefore, if you’re married, you and your spouse can collectively exclude twice this amount from taxation ($23.16 million). To say it another way, if you’re single and die in 2020 with assets worth a total of $13 million, just $1.42 million of your estate would be taxable.

However, most Americans don’t have more than $11.58 million worth of assets when they pass away. This is why the tax only impacts the wealthiest households in the country. It is estimated that less than 0.1% of all estates are taxable. Therefore, 99.9% of us don’t owe any federal estate taxes whatsoever at death. You should also be aware that the lifetime exemption includes taxable gifts as well. If you give $1 million to your children, for example, that counts toward your lifetime exemption. As a result, the amount of assets that could be excluded from estate taxes would be then decreased by this amount at your death.

You don’t have to pay any estate or gift tax until after your death, or until you’ve used up your entire lifetime exemption. However, if you give any major gifts throughout the year, you might have to file a gift tax return with the IRS to monitor your giving. There’s also an annual gift exclusion that lets you give up to $15,000 in gifts each year without touching your lifetime exemption. There are two key points to remember:

  • The exclusion amount is per recipient. Therefore, you can give $15,000 to as many people as you want every year, and they don’t even need to be a relative; and
  • The exclusion is per donor. This means that you and your spouse (if applicable) can give $15,000 apiece to as many people as you want. If you give $30,000 to your child to help her buy their first home and you’re married, you can consider half of the gift from each spouse.

The annual gift exclusion might be an effective way for you to reduce or even eliminate estate tax liability. The tax rate is effectively 40% on all taxable estate assets.

It is also worth noting that a lot of clients want to give away assets during their life time through annual gift exclusions because they are worried about the estate tax.  However, with such a high exemption, it is often better to keep assets in your estate.  This is because generally appreciable assets in your estate receive a “step-up” in basis at your death.  This point is outside the scope of this blog, but see here for why keeping assets in your estate is probably a good thing.  https://www.galliganmanning.com/higher-estate-tax-exemption-means-you-could-save-income-taxes-by-updating-your-estate-plan/

Finally, the following kinds of assets aren’t considered part of your taxable estate:

  • Anything left to a surviving spouse, called “the unlimited marital deduction”;
  • Any amount of money or property you leave to a charity;
  • Gifts you’ve given that are less than the annual exclusion for the year in which they were given; and
  • Some types of trust assets.

Some candidates seeks to greatly lower the estate and gift tax exemption, which may lead to many more taxable estates.  If you are concerned about this tax, or are after the election, please contact our office to discuss how the estate and gift tax impacts you.

Reference: The Motley Fool (Jan. 25, 2020) “What Is the Estate Tax in the United States?”

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