Now that the gift and estate tax exemption has reached a record high of $11.18 million (for 2018), it may seem that gifting assets to loved ones is less important than it was in previous years. However, lifetime gifts continue to provide significant benefits, whether your estate is taxable or not.
Let’s examine three reasons why making gifts remains an important part of estate planning:
1. Lifetime gifts reduce estate taxes. If your estate exceeds the exemption amount — or you believe it will in the future — regular lifetime gifts can substantially reduce your estate tax bill.
The annual gift tax exclusion allows you to give up to $15,000 per recipient ($30,000 if you “split” gifts with your spouse) tax-free without using up any of your gift and estate tax exemption. In addition, direct payments of tuition or medical expenses on behalf of your loved ones are excluded from gift tax.
Taxable gifts — that is, gifts beyond the annual exclusion amount and not eligible for the tuition and medical expense exclusion — can also reduce estate tax liability by removing future appreciation from your taxable estate. You may be better off paying gift tax on an asset’s current value rather than estate tax on its appreciated value down the road.
When gifting appreciable assets, however, be sure to consider the potential income tax implications. Property transferred at death receives a “stepped-up basis” equal to its date-of-death fair market value, which means the recipient can turn around and sell the property free of capital gains taxes. Property transferred during life retains your tax basis, so it’s important to weigh the estate tax savings against the potential income tax costs.
2. Tax laws aren’t permanent. Even if your estate is within the exemption amount now, it pays to make regular gifts. Why? Because even though the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act doubled the exemption amount, and that amount will be adjusted annually for inflation, the doubling expires after 2025. Without further legislation, the exemption will return to an inflation-adjusted $5 million in 2026.
Thus, taxpayers with estates in roughly the $6 million to $11 million range (twice that for married couples), whose estates would escape estate taxes if they were to die while the doubled exemption is in effect, still need to keep potential post-2025 estate tax liability in mind in their estate planning.
3. Gifts provide nontax benefits. Tax planning aside, there are other reasons to make lifetime gifts. For example, perhaps you wish to use gifting to shape your family members’ behavior — for example, by providing gifts to those who attend college. And if you own a business, gifts of interests in the business may be a key component of your ownership and management succession plan. Or you might simply wish to see your loved ones enjoy the gifts.
Regardless of the amount of your wealth, consider a program of regular lifetime giving. We can help you devise and incorporate a gifting program as part of your estate plan.