If you have a lot of wealth, now is the time to take advantage of giving some of it away to loved ones, charity or anything else dear to you. And if they inherit your estate, they get another benefit. Reason: The new tax law has given a big break to such top-dollar wealth transfers.
What's more, there's a time limit on this opportunity. It runs out after tax year 2025. Unless, that is, Congress speeds up the expiration date. Obviously, the sooner you exploit this opening, the more you can shower on the recipients of the largesse. Plus, the more you give away, the smaller your estate gets -hence the lower the likelihood the estate has to write a check to the Internal Revenue Service once you go to your reward.
Washington has taxed estates since 1924, and as recently as 2001, the threshold when taxes kicked in was $675,000, according to the Tax Policy Center. This issue has become a partisan football, with Republicans decrying what they call "the death tax" as a disincentive to entrepreneurs, and Democrats saying higher thresholds are a give-away to the rich. This so-called exemption level (as in exempt from taxation) has risen ever since, and in fact vanished altogether in 2010 due to a quirk in legislative language, with reinstatement the following year.
But the most profound ceiling increase came from the GOP-supported Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, which took effect last year. The TCJA doubled the exemption level, and indexed it to inflation. Anything above those new thresholds is taxed at 40%.
That change meant the levels climbed to $11.2 million for singles and $22.4 million for married couples. For 2019, they rise to $11.4 million and $22.8 million.
Here are some considerations:
Estate Size Matters
Although the exemption for estates is sky-high for now, it never hurts to whittle it down with gifts to those you care about. Of course, that's a good thing for them, but this is good just-in-case planning. Let's say you die in 2026, just after President Elizabeth Warren lowers the exemption to $100,000. Your heirs won't be too happy about that.
As things stand at the moment, your spouse can get the entire estate tax-free no matter how big it is. And inheritances are not taxable income for beneficiaries in general.
An added boon is the portability of the exemption level between spouses. In an example furnished by the Tax Policy Center: "If the first spouse to die bequeathed $5 million to children and grandchildren, the survivor's exemption would increase by the unused $6.2 million" of the $11.2 million ceiling for couples in 2018.
Known as the "annual exclusion," the tax-free gift you can give amounts to $15,000, an amount that should remain the same this year. True, a person can't carry over an unused portion to the next year.
Still, the beauty of the tax code here is that there's a multiplier effect for couples with several beneficiaries. Both spouses, for instance, could each give the max to a child, or $30,000 total. And then turn around and do it again for the child's own spouse, for another $30,000. Or instead of cash, give an income-producing property, which is a nice plus for someone in a lower income tax bracket than the generous parents are.
A smart gifting strategy is to place the gift into a trust, according to Gregg Simon and Luke Harriman, lawyers with Much Shelist in Chicago, writing in The National Law Review. That way, the sum is protected from the beneficiary's creditors, which may include a former spouse. In addition, the givers can maintain some control over the uses of the money.
For the really generous, Simon and Harriman advise, the donor could put the proceeds into a "donor" trust (also known as a "grantor" trust), where he or she is responsible for any taxes on income that the gift generates.
However you look at it, now is the golden age of estate planning and gift giving.
(This article has been updated.)
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About the author: Larry Light is the markets editor of Chief Investment Officer magazine. He has previously been an editor and reporter at the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, BusinessWeek, MONEY and CBS MoneyWatch. He is the author of Taming the Beast (John Wiley), a history of investment strategies.