The federal estate and gift tax exemption is applied to the sum total of a person’s taxable gifts during life and the assets they leave behind at death. In 2017, Congress doubled the exemption, starting in 2018. That number continues to rise with inflation until 2025, unless the laws are changed. According to the article “Estate and Gift Taxes 2021—2022: Here’s What You Need to Know” from The Wall Street Journal, the 2017 expansion cut the number of taxable estates from about 8,000 to about 3,000 in 2019.
Gift Tax Exemptions. In 2020, the exemption was $11.58 million per individual ($23.16 million per married couple). An inflation adjustment increased this amount to $11.7 million per person and $23.4 million per couple. For 2020 and 2021, the top estate-tax rate is 40%.
That increase is set to end in 2025, but both the Treasury Department and the IRS issued regulations in 2019 allowing the increased exemption to apply to gifts made while this increase is in effect, even if Congress lowers the exemption after those gifts were made.
Capital Gains After Death. Under current law, investments owned at the time of death are not subject to capital gains taxes. This is referred to as a “step-up in basis.” Congress and the Biden administration are now considering reducing or eliminating this benefit as a means of raising revenue.
Annual Gift Tax Exemptions. In 2020 and 2021, the annual gift-tax exclusion is $15,000 for each individual donor, for each individual recipient. You can give anyone up to $15,000 in assets per year and not owe any federal gift taxes. A generous couple with two married children and six grandchildren may give away $300,000 to their ten descendants. The couple could also give $30,000 to as many other people as they want, friends or family members or perfect strangers.
Above the $15,000 per donor, per recipient, gifts are subtracted from the lifetime gift and estate-tax exemption. Annual gifts are not deductible for income tax purposes and they are not considered income for the recipient. If the gift is not cash, the giver’s “cost basis” does carry over to the recipient.
Other Tax-Free Gifts. Another way to make a gift is to pay educational or health expenses for another person. The payment must go directly from the person giving the gift to the college, private school, or medical provider on behalf of another person. Otherwise, it will not have any tax benefit for the person giving the gift.
While a generous gift is always welcome, making a gift that is part of a holistic estate plan benefits you and your recipients. Speak with an experienced estate planning attorney about the role of gifting in your overall estate plan.
Reference: The Wall Street Journal (April 8, 2021) “Estate and Gift Taxes 2021—2022: Here’s What You Need to Know”