2013 is now three days old and we at Plainly Legal are pleased to report we have survived the "fiscal cliff" that loomed so ominously at year-end. While it took a few extra hours, some arm-twisting, and likely more than a few hurt feelings, Congress has managed a compromise and begun to address the expiration of tax cuts and mandatory spending reductions that make up the “fiscal cliff.” While the legislation passed by Congress is broad and addresses many different aspects of taxation, and Congress still needs to address a number of other areas in the next few months, I wanted to take just a few moments of your time to address impact of that legislation on the estate planning process.
The final legislation’s impact on the estate planning process is rather limited as compared to earlier proposed bills, but for the most part there is good news. The most important aspects of the bill are:
- The new law makes permanent the existing $5,000,000 exemption for each taxpayer for the Federal Estate Tax, and the law indexes this exemption to the rate of inflation so the exemption will grow slowly over time. This means that estates smaller than $5,000,000 ($10,000,000 for a married couple) are not subject to Federal Estate Taxation.
- The Lifetime Gift Tax Exemption for making gifts prior to death also remains at $5,000,000. The Lifetime Gift Tax Exemption and the Estate Tax Exemption remain linked, so every dollar of the Lifetime Gift Tax Exemption used counts against the Estate Tax Exemption.
- The legislation makes permanent the exemption portability, which is the ability of a widow or widower to make use of the unused exemption amount of a deceased spouse.
- The only substantive change in the legislation from the rules that governed for the past twelve months is an increase in the highest rate of estate taxation from 35% to 40%.
For better or worse, the legislation makes only limited changes to the law affecting estate planning. Plainly Legal will leave to others the political discourse and countless opinions expressed by elected officials, pundits, and others about the scope of the changes. Instead, we take solace in the fact that this legislation creates a level of certainty in the estate tax law that has not existed for the last few years. The certainty and permanency of exemptions and provisions that no longer have a sunset date (at least until Congress decides to actively make changes again) creates an opportunity to review a client's estate planning and determine whether it is appropriate to make any changes. With higher exemption limits, it may no longer be necessary for both a husband and wife to have a Living Trust, allowing planning simplification. In addition, concerns or issues which have been weighing on clients about family situations until the federal law was clearer can be addressed. It is also a good time to review your assets and confirm they are properly titled to avoid probate.