The Tax Relief, Unemployment Insurance Reauthorization, and Job Creation Act of 2010 signed into law on December 17, 2011, creates an unprecedented opportunity for wealthy individuals to make tax-motivated gifts -- but only in 2011 and 2012. Individuals may give up to $5 million to loved ones (married couples may give up to $10 million) without having to pay gift tax. Prior to 2011, the most that could be given was $1 million ($2 million for married couples). While the law permitting gifts at this level may be extended beyond 2012, as things stand now the limit will revert back to $1 million in 2013.
Tax-free transfer amounts have never been this high
The lifetime tax-free amount for estate and generation-skipping (GST) purposes grew steadily from near $1 million in 2001 to $3.5 million in 2009. During that same span, however, the lifetime tax-free amount for gift taxes was stuck at $1 million.
Because Congress failed to act in 2009 to extend the estate tax, Americans experienced a year of uncertainty in 2010. In theory, there was no estate or GST tax in 2010, but there was the threat of retroactive imposition of the tax. There was no uncertainty about the gift tax in 2010 -- the tax-free limit stayed at $1 million.
The 2010 tax law reinstated the estate and GST tax for two years and set the lifetime tax-free amounts at $5 million. This was unexpected, but at least had been discussed as a possibility. What was completely unexpected was that the gift tax tax-free amount also would be bumped to $5 million. The gift, estate and GST tax-free amounts have not been "unified" this century.
Transfer tax rates have never been this low
The 2010 tax law also set the rate for the estate, gift and GST tax for 2011 and 2012 at 35%. Rates have not been that low since the implementation of the current estate and gift tax scheme in 1981. In 2001, taxes were based on a sliding rate schedule which topped out at 55%. The rate was gradually reduced to 45% in 2007 - 2009. If Congress does nothing to change the law, the maximum rate will jump back to 55% in 2013.
What will happen in 2013?
Unless Congress changes the law, in 2013 the gift tax, estate tax and GST tax-free amounts will fall from these unprecedented levels to $1 million (or approximately $1,100,000 for the GST). No one knows if Congress will extend the $5 million tax-free amount. Many observers think it will be difficult politically for Congress to reduce the tax-free amount, so they speculate that we will never see tax-free amounts of less than $5 million. However, most of these same observers were wrong when they predicted that Congress would act in 2009 to prevent a one-year repeal of the estate tax.
The smartest course may be to act now
Since the lower tax-free amounts and the higher rates may return in 2013, the wisest course for persons who can afford it is to make gifts of up to the tax-free amount in 2011 or 2012. The advantages include:
- The ability to take advantage of the high gift tax exemption amount while it is available.
- The ability to get not only the amount of the gift out of the donor's estate but also the appreciation on the property that is given between the date of the gift and the date of the donor's death.
- Gifts may be made outright or in trust.
- Gifts of illiquid assets, such as undivided interests and real property or limited partnership interests, may be given.
- The effectiveness of the gift may be enhanced if it is made to a trust which is treated as a "grantor trust" for income tax purposes.
Possible concerns are:
- As always, donors should not give away assets which they may need for their own use and support.
- In order to be effective, the donor must give up control and use of the property. While some restrictions may be placed on the use of the property by others, the gift must be irrevocable and complete.
- The gifts must be made while the current law is in place (in 2011 or 2012).
- There is some risk of a "claw-back" tax being imposed at the donor's death. The claw-back tax will be the subject of a separate post on texasprobate.com. While most observers think this is unlikely, many of the benefits of the gift will be achieved even if it happens. Donors should understand this risk before making gifts under the new law.
- A gift tax return must be filed and some or all of the donor's lifetime gift tax exemption will be used.
The complexity of the new law and the dollars involved -- both the dollar amount of the gifts and the dollar amount of the taxes at stake -- mean that donors should consult with qualified estate planning counsel before acting. For more information, contact Glenn Karisch at The Karisch Law Firm, PLLC.