Gifting during your lifetime can be an effective estate planning strategy with multiple benefits. Lifetime gifting can help you reduce estate taxes and shift future appreciation out of your estate while providing your beneficiaries with immediate use and enjoyment of the transferred assets. Use of the annual gift exclusion is one of the more fundamental and highly effective ways to begin transferring wealth during your lifetime to the people you love.
Understanding the basics
1. Federal gift and estate taxes
Under the current U.S. transfer tax system, all lifetime gifts and bequests made at death in excess of certain dollar thresholds are subject to gift and estate tax rates as high as 40 percent. This threshold, known as the “basic exclusion amount,” is a combined lifetime gift and estate tax exemption currently set at $11.58 million per donor in 2020.
2. Additional shelter
In addition to the lifetime gift and estate tax exemption, the Internal Revenue Code allows donors to gift up to $15,000 each (in 2020) to an unlimited number of recipients per calendar year. This “annual gift exclusion” amount is indexed to inflation (subject to $1,000 increments).
Annual exclusion gifts are not included in the calculation of gift tax liability. As a result, annual exclusion gifts will not count against the donor’s lifetime gift and estate tax exemptions.
3. Other gift tax exclusions
Gifts made to U.S. citizen spouses are already fully deductible under the unlimited marital deduction. Gifts to non-U.S. citizen spouses, however, are not eligible for the unlimited marital deduction; rather, they are eligible for a special annual gift tax exclusion ($157,000 per year in 2020).
In addition, donors may pay an unlimited amount of educational and medical expenses on behalf of any donee without incurring a taxable gift, as long as payments are made directly to the healthcare provider or educational institution.
4. Gift splitting
A married donor can effectively double annual exclusion gifts to each recipient by electing to “gift-split” with a spouse. For example, in 2019, so long as both spouses consent, a married donor can give $30,000 (instead of only $15,000) to a single recipient by splitting the gift with a spouse.
Certain gifts don’t qualify for the annual gift tax exclusion
Only gifts of a present interest qualify for the annual gift tax exclusion. The recipient must be granted immediate and unrestricted use, possession or enjoyment of the property. In contrast, gifts of future interests (such as gifts of a remainder interest or other types of delayed interests) do not qualify for the annual gift tax exclusion.
Gift tax returns
In general, donors must file a federal gift tax return (Form 709) if they gift more than the annual exclusion amount to any recipient during a particular calendar year, or if gift splitting is elected. In some cases, donors are well-advised to file a gift tax return to document gifts even if no portion of the donor’s lifetime gift tax exemption was used and no immediate gift taxes are due.
Annual exclusion gifts and the effect of compound growth
A regular annual exclusion gifting strategy combined with compounding investment growth can help donors transfer substantial amounts of wealth out of their estates over time without using any of their lifetime gift exemption.
The chart below illustrates the effect of compounding growth on a program of annual exclusion gifts from two parents to a grantor trust for the benefit of a child over a 30-year period. The illustration assumes annual exclusion gifts of $30,000 per year (indexed for inflation at 1.1%) for 30 years, a 5% annual growth rate, no distributions, and the income taxes on the trust income are paid by the grantors. Under these assumptions, the trust is projected to grow to over $2.2 million by the end of the 30-year period.
Gifting recipients and methods
It’s important to consider each individual recipient when determining the appropriate gifting vehicle.
Children cannot legally have unrestricted access to gifted funds until they reach the age of majority. You can arrange for an adult to manage the property by establishing an irrevocable trust, a custodial account authorized by state law, or a Section 529 educational savings plan. Subject to specific qualifying factors, gifts to the following vehicles will qualify for the annual gift tax exclusion.
Gifts to irrevocable trusts
Different types of trusts may be set up for the benefit of the recipients of annual exclusion gifts. One type of trust is the Section 2503(c) Minor’s Trust, which is a separate legal entity established to hold gifts in trust for a child. Since gifts to the trust are irrevocable and trust assets may grow substantially over time, donors should fully understand that the child will have complete control over the assets at age 21.
Gifts to Uniform Transfer to Minors Act (UTMA) and Uniform Gift to Minors Act (UGMA) custodial accounts
The UTMA and UGMA provide simplified ways to transfer assets to minor children without requiring the services of an attorney to draft trust documents or the court appointment of a trustee. The terms of UTMA/UGMA custodial accounts are established under state laws instead of a trust document.
Gifts to Section 529 plans
Section 529 plans can grow tax-deferred while distributions for qualified education expenses are generally not subject to income taxes. (Under the Tax Cuts & Jobs Act of 2017, the definition of qualified education expenses was recently expanded to include up to $10,000 per year, per student for private K-12 tuition expenses.)
Subject to specific rules, Section 529 plans allow the frontloading of up to five years of annual exclusion gifting in one year without triggering gift taxes.
Select the appropriate gifting strategy for your situation
Annual exclusion gifting can be a powerful wealth transfer strategy and your advisor can help determine the strategies that are appropriate for you and your family. If interested, please reach out to your local wealth professional for more information on annual exclusion gifting.