Money In Motion June 2017

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Understanding the Gift Tax

“How can I avoid the federal gift tax?” If this question is on your mind, you aren’t alone. The good news is that few taxpayers or estates will ever have to pay it.

Misconceptions surround this tax. The I.R.S. sets both a yearly gift tax exclusion amount and a lifetime gift tax exemption amount, and this is where the confusion develops.

Here’s what you need to remember: practically speaking, the federal gift tax is a tax on estates. If it wasn’t in place, the rich could simply give away the bulk of their money or property, while living, to spare their heirs from inheritance taxes.

Now that you know the reason the federal government established the gift tax, you can see that the lifetime gift tax exclusion matters more than the annual one.

“What percentage of my gifts will be taxed this year?” Many people wrongly assume that if they give a gift exceeding the annual gift tax exclusion, their tax bill will go up next year. Unless the gift is huge, that won’t likely occur.

The I.R.S. has set the annual gift tax exclusion at $14,000 this year. What this means is that you can gift up to $14,000 each to as many individuals as you like in 2017 without having to pay any gift taxes. A married couple may gift up to $28,000 each to an unlimited number of individuals tax free this year – this is known as a “split gift.” Gifts may be made in cash, stock, collectibles, real estate – just about any form of property with value so long as you cede ownership and control of it.1

So, how are amounts over the $14,000 annual exclusion handled? The excess amounts count against the $5.49 million lifetime gift tax exemption (which is periodically adjusted upward in response to inflation). While you will need to file a gift tax return if you make a gift larger than $14,000 in 2017, you owe no gift tax until your total gifts exceed the lifetime exemption.1

“What happens if I go over the lifetime exemption?” If that occurs, then you will pay a 40% gift tax on gifts above the $5.49 million lifetime exemption amount. One exception, though: all gifts that you make to your spouse are tax free, provided he or she is a U.S. citizen. This is known as the marital deduction.2,3

“But aren’t the gift tax and estate tax exemptions linked?” They are. The lifetime gift tax exemption, estate tax exemption, and generation-skipping tax (GST) exemption are conjoined. Sometimes they are simply called the unified credit. If you have already made taxable lifetime gifts that have used up $4 million of the current $5.49 million unified credit, then only $1.49 million of your estate will be exempt from inheritance taxes if you die in 2017.2

That unified credit is portable, however. That means that if you don’t use all of it up during your lifetime, the unused portion of the credit can pass to your spouse at your death. (One footnote: the lifetime GST exemption regarding asset transfer to recipients two or more generations younger than the donor is not portable.)1,2

In sum, most estates can make larger gifts during the individual’s life without any estate, gift, or income tax consequences. If you have estate planning questions in mind, turn to a legal or financial professional, well versed in these matters, for answers.

1 – [12/6/16]
2 – [6/26/17]
3 – [6/25/17]


Key Estate Planning Mistakes to Avoid

Too many people make these common errors.

Many affluent professionals and business owners put estate planning on hold. Only the courts and lawyers stand to benefit from their procrastination. While inaction is the biggest estate planning error, several other major mistakes can occur. The following blunders can lead to major problems.

  • Failing to revise an estate plan after a spouse or child dies. This is truly a devastating event, and the grief that follows may be so deep and prolonged that attention may not be paid to this. A death in the family commonly requires a change in the terms of how family assets will be distributed. Without an update, questions (and squabbles) may emerge later.
  • Going years without updating beneficiaries. Beneficiary designations on qualified retirement plans and life insurance policies usually override bequests made in wills or trusts. Many people never review beneficiary designations over time, and the estate planning consequences of this inattention can be serious. For example, a woman can leave an IRA to her granddaughter in a will, but if her ex-husband is listed as the primary beneficiary of that IRA, those IRA assets will go to him per the beneficiary form. Beneficiary designations have an advantage – they allow assets to transfer to heirs without going through probate. If beneficiary designations are outdated, that advantage matters little.1,2
  • Thinking of a will as a shield against probate. Having a will in place does not automatically prevent assets from being probated. A living trust is designed to provide that kind of protection for assets; a will is not. An individual can clearly express “who gets what” in a will, yet end up having the courts determine the distribution of his or her assets.2  
  • Supposing minor heirs will handle money well when they become young adults. There are multi-millionaires who go no further than a will when it comes to estate planning. When a will is the only estate planning tool directing the transfer of assets at death, assets can transfer to heirs aged 18 or older in many states without prohibitions. Imagine an 18-year-old inheriting several million dollars in liquid or illiquid assets. How many 18-year-olds (or 25-year-olds, for that matter) have the skill set to manage that kind of inheritance? If a trust exists and a trustee can control the distribution of assets to heirs, then situations such as these may be averted. A well-written trust may also help to prevent arguments among young heirs about who was meant to receive this or that asset.3

Too many people do too little estate planning. Avoid joining their ranks, and plan thoroughly to avoid these all-too-frequent mistakes.  


1 – [10/8/16]

2 – [3/3/17]

3 – [3/16/17]



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