Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Understanding the Estate and Gift Taxes

     One of the most misunderstood areas of estate planning involves the impact of Federal Estate and Gift Taxes. While most people understand they pay Federal Estate Tax on inherited assets and Federal Gift Tax on gifts made, few people truly understand what creates liability for these taxes and who is responsible for paying them.
     The first point to understand is that Federal Gift and Estate taxes are integrated into a single transfer tax under a unified rate schedule and with a unified credit that imposes a single tax on transfers during life and at death. The Internal Revenue Service group gifts and inherited assets together for purposes of determining total tax owed and the amount of assets excludable before payment of either Federal Gift or Estate taxes
     Let us begin with the Estate Tax. The estate of a deceased individual pays Estate Tax on the assets transferred to non-spouses at the individual's death. The estate tax rate is a sliding scale that tops out at 40%.  The Tax Code includes an Exclusion, which currently allows an estate to transfer $5,430,000.00 before incurring any Estate Tax liability. In addition to this large Exclusion, the Tax Code provides that any assets transferred to a surviving spouse are exempt from tax liability. In addition, any portion of the Exclusion that the estate of the first to die of a married couple does not use can be used by the surviving spouse's estate at his or her death. This ability, commonly known as Portability, means that a married couple will need to transfer nearly $11,000,000.00 at death before paying any Estate Tax. The Tax Code ties the Exclusion amount to the cost of living and therefore each year the Exclusion grows allowing ever-greater tax-free transfers.
     A person can choose to make gifts during lifetime instead of making bequests at death, making Gift Tax an important consideration. The person making the gift is liable for paying the Gift tax, if any is due. As indicated above, Gift and Estate taxes are integrated into a single transfer tax, so that the exclusion from tax becomes a "lifetime exclusion" rather than an exclusion at death. Any exclusion used during lifetime against Gift taxes will reduce the exclusion available against Estate taxes. 
     As noted above, we offset any Gift Tax against the Lifetime Exclusion before any tax becomes due. There is also another exclusion against Gift Tax--the "Annual Exclusion. A The Annual Exclusion on Gift Taxes allows any person to give up to $14,000 to any number of people, each year without creating any Gift tax liability. This means that a husband and wife together can give the each of their three children and their spouses $28,000 each year, reducing the parents' taxable estate by $168,000 each year without paying any tax on those transfers, and without using the Lifetime Exclusion. If our couple wanted to give their children additional amounts in a year, every dollar over $14,000 per beneficiary then reduces the parent’s Lifetime Exclusion.
     As an example, if the parents want to make a $200,000 gift to each of their three children so that the children can purchase a home, the parents can give a total of $28,000 to each child and $28,000 to each child’s spouse tax-free using the Annual Exclusion. The remaining $432,000 in gifts to the children and their spouses will reduce each of the parent's Lifetime Exclusion by $216,000 and reduce their remaining Estate Tax Exclusion by the same amount.
     In estate planning, we employ strategies that can increase the benefit of each of these Exclusions for people able to make substantial gifts. We will discuss some of these in our next blogs. 


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