How to avoid gift taxes

How to avoid gift taxes

We have received several inquiries this year from clients who want to make a financial gift to a family member but were concerned about gift taxes. For most U.S. citizens, even if the gift is large, the answer to the question, “How much is the gift tax?” can be “not one red cent” with proper planning.

What is the gift tax?

Under current tax law, if a person accumulates enough assets, an estate tax can be imposed upon death. The estate tax becomes an issue once the taxable estate reaches a threshold amount which increases with inflation each year. In 2017, that threshold is $5,490,000 per person or, with good planning, $10,980,000 per couple. The estate tax is imposed based upon what is owned and transferred at death to heirs. The tax can be as high as 40%.

Note: Tax code changes doubled the amount that can be left or gifted to $11,200,000 per person beginning in 2018.

The gift tax uses the same scale as the estate tax but applies to transfers made while one is alive. It is generally charged to the donor not the recipient.

Because the estate tax rate is so high, someone near the end of their life has a strong incentive to give their assets away…

Because the estate tax rate is so high, someone near the end of their life has a strong incentive to give their assets away so their heirs could claim the assets were not part of the estate and avoid the tax. By imposing a tax on gifts, the ability to make “deathbed” transfers to avoid the estate taxes is reduced.

What is a gift?

What is and isn’t a gift seems like a straightforward issue but from a tax code perspective, there are some nuances worth noting. We will cover two here.

First, the transfer of an asset to another generally must be a full and actual transfer of ownership. The term in the tax code is a “completed gift.”  The transfer cannot be contingent upon an event or action and the donor cannot have the ability to get the asset back.

There are gifting techniques which allow funds to be used for the donor’s benefit. For instance, a gift can be made to a trust that pays the donor income for a specified time period, after which the assets shift to a beneficiary. (This technique can be complex and is beyond the scope of this primer, but we wanted to acknowledge not all gifting involves the immediate and full surrender of an asset.)

Second, the value of the gift is typically the fair market value of the asset when the gift is completed, not what the donor wants to claim the asset is worth. Since the taxes are based on the value, donors have an incentive to claim assets are worth less than they really are. For gifts of cash or assets like publicly traded securities, valuing the gift is straightforward while other assets such as real estate, art, and jewelry can be more challenging.

What are the exclusions from the gift tax?

Many lifetime transfers are exempt from gift taxes. Just as you can leave an unlimited amount to your spouse or qualified charities upon your death without estate taxes, you may give unlimited amounts to your spouse or to a qualified charity anytime during your life without gift taxes.

For gifts to other recipients, there is an “annual gift tax exclusion.” It was $10,000 for many years but in 2017 became $14,000. (This limit is indexed to inflation and should be modestly higher at some point in the future.) The exclusion permits you to gift up to $14,000 of assets each to as many people as you like during 2017.

Your spouse is also able to gift to you an unlimited amount and $14,000 to as many people as desired. Therefore, between the two of you, up to $28,000 can be gifted without incurring any gift tax. Keep in mind the gifting limit is per person per year. So, suppose you wish to give a gift to your son who is married. Both you and your spouse can gift $14,000 each to your son and his spouse for a total of $56,000 in gifts for 2017 with no gift taxes.

To avoid gift taxes on gifts that exceed the $14,000 exclusion, you may need to file a Form 709 depending on the amount and titling of the account from which the gift is made. This is a special tax form that is not found in the typical 1040 tax packet.

What you want this money to be used for can offer more exemptions and special rules. You can use up to your next five years’ annual exclusion in advance by making a cash gift of $70,000 (five times $14,000) to a section 529 college savings plan without incurring gift taxes. Got four grandchildren? Then $280,000 can be gifted at one time free from tax. (If additional gifts are made within five years, a Form 709 may be needed to avoid gift tax.)

A cash gift paid directly to a university for tuition on behalf of a student or paid directly to an institution for certain health care expenses are not subject to the annual limit and do not count toward the lifetime limit.

How do you avoid gift taxes on large gifts?

Earlier, we described how a married couple could give their son and his spouse a total of $56,000 in 2017 gift tax free by using their annual gift tax exclusions. What if they wanted to give $100,000?

Because the exclusion is available annually, if the need for the $100,000 is not urgent, they could simply make the gifts over two tax years. We often see this done in the fall. Our couple could give the $56,000 now and the rest after New Year’s.

Even if the annual limit is exceeded, gift taxes may still be avoided. Say a single man wants to give his only child $100,000. There is only one $14,000 annual exclusion amount available. By filing Form 709 and using some of his “unified credit,” no taxes are payable. All U.S. citizens get a credit against estate and gift taxes for the tax on estates equal to the exemption amount ($5,490,000 in 2017).

Here is how it works. He gives his son $100,000 which is $86,000 over the limit. So he files a Form 709, uses some of his credit, and avoids gift taxes. The ramification of this is that he can no longer leave $5,490,000 free of estate taxes. If he dies in 2017, he will only be able to leave $5,404,000 ($5,490,000 less $86,000) estate tax free.

For most, gift taxes are avoidable

Despite the complexity of our tax code, basic gifting goals can usually be satisfied with simple techniques and the right paperwork. For some families, there are issues that make things more complicated. Some beneficiaries would not handle a large gift responsibly. Some assets are not easily divided up. Differences in income tax brackets between donor and recipient can present other tax savings opportunities – or tax traps.

Nonetheless, one of the things we love about our clients is they are generous. We have facilitated many gifts to family, close friends, and charity over the years and we would be happy to help you should that be your desire.

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Moisand Fitzgerald Tamayo, LLC is an Orlando, Tampa and Melbourne, Florida based fee-only financial planner serving central Florida and clients across the country. Moisand Fitzgerald Tamayo, LLC specializes in providing objective financial planning, retirement planning, and investment management to help clients build, manage, grow, and protect their assets through all phases of one’s life and the many transitions in between. If you have any questions or would like to discuss anything further, please give us a call or send us a note. If you are not a client and wish to receive emails notifying you of new posts – no more than once per month – fill out the subscription information in the sidebar to the right. For more frequent updates, follow us on FacebookLinkedIn, or Twitter.  

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About Dan Moisand

Dan Moisand is a fee-only financial advisor with Moisand Fitzgerald Tamayo, LLC. He is a regular contributor for multiple outlets, including Florida Today, MarketWatch, and The Wall Street Journal. His writing and financial advice have also been featured in Financial Planning, Investment Advisor, Wealth Manager/Advising Boomers, Forbes, Smart Money, and The New York Times, among other publications. He is the only two-time winner of the Journal of Financial Planning’s “Call for Papers” competition and has been named a top financial planner and advisor by multiple publications. Investment News named Dan one of the “twenty most influential men and women” in the history of financial planning. He currently serves on the Board of Directors for the CFP (Certified Financial Planner) Board.


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