What’s Happening to the Estate Tax?

Proposals now being considered by President Biden may expand the number of Americans who will need to pay the federal estate tax in one of two ways: raising rates and lowering qualifying thresholds on estates and increasing the liability for inheriting and selling assets. It is likely that these changes will raise revenues from the truly wealthy, while also imposing estate taxes on Americans with more modest assets, according to a recent article “It May Be Time to Start Worrying About the Estate Tax” from The New York Times.

Inheritance taxes are paid by the estate of a person who died. Some states have estate taxes of their own, with lower asset thresholds. As of this writing, a married couple would need to have assets of more than $23.4 million before they had to plan for federal estate taxes. This historically high exemption may be ending sooner than originally anticipated.

One of the changes being considered is a common tax shelter. Known as the “step-up in basis at death,” this values the assets in an estate at the date of death and disregards any capital gains in a deceased person’s portfolio. Eliminating the step-up in basis would require inheritors to pay capital gains whenever they sold assets, including everything from the family home to stock portfolios.

If you’re lucky enough to inherit wealth, this little item has been an accounting gift for many years. A person who inherits stock doesn’t have to think twice about what their parents or grandparents paid decades ago. All of the capital gains in those shares or any other inherited investment are effectively erased, when the owner dies. There are no capital gains to calculate or taxes to pay.

However, those capital gains taxes are lost revenue to the federal government. Eliminating the step-up rules could potentially generate billions in taxes from the very wealthy but is likely to create financial pain for people who have lower levels of wealth. A family that inherited a home, for instance, would have a much bigger tax burden, even if the home was not a multi-million-dollar property but simply one that gained in value over time.

Reducing the estate tax exemption could lead to wealthy people having to revise their estate plans sooner rather than later. Twenty years ago, the exemption was $675,000 per person and the tax rate was 55%. Over the next two decades, the exemption grew and the rates fell. The exemption is now $11.7 million per person and the tax rate above that amount is 40%.

Lowering the exemption, possibly back to the 2009 level, would dramatically increase tax revenue.

What is likely to occur and when, remains unknown, but what is certain is that there will be changes to the federal estate tax. Stay up to date on proposed changes and be prepared to update your estate plan accordingly.

Reference: The New York Times (March 12, 2021) “It May Be Time to Start Worrying About the Estate Tax”

Can a Charity Be a Beneficiary of an Estate?

The interest in charitable giving increased in 2020 for two reasons. One was a dramatic increase in need as a result of the COVID pandemic, reports The Tax Advisor’s article “Charitable income tax deductions for trusts and estates.” The other was more pragmatic from a tax planning perspective. The CARES Act increased the amounts of charitable contributions that may be deducted from taxes by individuals and corporations.

What if a person wishes to make a donation from the assets that are held in trust? Is that still an income tax deduction? It depends.

The rules for donations from trusts are substantially different than those for charitable contribution deductions for individuals and corporations. The IRS code allows an estate or nongrantor trust to make a deduction which, if pursuant to the terms of the governing instrument, is paid for a purpose specified in Section 170(c). For trusts created on or before October 9, 1969, the IRS code expands the scope of the deduction to allow for a deduction of the gross income set aside permanently for charitable purposes.

If the trust or estate allows for payments to be made for charity, then donations from a trust are allowed and may be tax deductions. Otherwise, they cannot be deducted.

If the trust or estate allows distributions for charity, the type of asset contributed and how it was acquired by the trust or estate determines whether a tax deduction for a charitable donation is permitted. Here are some basic rules, but every situation is different and requires the guidance of an experienced estate planning attorney.

Cash donations. A trust or estate making cash donations may deduct to the extent of the lesser of the taxable income for the year or the amount of the contribution.

Noncash assets purchased by the trust/estate: If the trust or estate purchased marketable securities with income, the cost basis of the asset is considered the amount contributed from gross income. The trust or estate cannot avoid recognizing capital gain on a noncash asset that is donated, while also deducting the full value of the asset contributed. The trust or estate’s deduction is limited to the asset’s cost basis.

Noncash assets contributed to the trust/estate: If the trust or estate acquired an asset it wants to donate to charity as part of the funding of the fiduciary arrangement, no charity deduction is permitted. The asset that is part of the trust or estate’s corpus, the principal of the estate, is not gross income.

The order of charitable deductions, compared to distribution deductions, can cause a great deal of complexity in tax planning and reporting. Required distributions to noncharitable beneficiaries must be accounted for first, and the charitable deduction is not taken into account in calculating distributable net income. The recipients of the distributions do not get the benefit of the deduction. The trust or the estate does.

Charitable distributions are considered next, which may offset any remaining taxable income. Last are discretionary distributions to noncharitable beneficiaries, so these beneficiaries may receive the largest benefit from any charitable deduction.

If the trust claims a charitable deduction, it must file form 1041A for the relevant tax year, unless it meets any of the exceptions noted in the instructions in the form.

These are complex estate and tax matters, requiring the guidance of an experienced estate planning attorney for optimal results.

Reference: The Tax Advisor (March 1, 2021) “Charitable income tax deductions for trusts and estates”

Can I Bequeath My Home to My Children without Taxes?

As part of your estate planning, you can pass your house tax-free to an heir. savingadvice.com’s recent article entitled “Use These Tips to Pass Your House to Your Heirs Tax-Free” reminds us that the most important thing is to look at the total value of your entire estate (not just your home). If the value is more than $11.58 million (the unified federal estate gift and estate tax exemption amount for 2020), then your estate will be subject to estate taxes. If it’s under that amount, there’s no worries, and you can pass a house tax-free through a will. However, you may also have state estate taxes on the inheritance.

Ask an experienced estate planning attorney about the potential capital gains taxes your heirs may have to pay, when they sell the property. If you owe any money to Medicaid upon your death, the state can place a lien on your property, which can affect your heirs. Let’s look at some options to discuss with your estate planning attorney:

Irrevocable Trust. If you have an estate that’s more than the $11.58 million amount, you might want to look at putting the house into an irrevocable trust, instead of just including it in your will. Ask your attorney about a qualified personal residence trust. When you die, the house will go to the heir(s) that you’ve designated with the trust. However, if you sell the house, the money goes into the trust and can’t be cashed out if the situation changes. It’s something to consider, if you have a high-value estate and want to pass a house tax-free to your children or other loved ones.

As a Gift. You can gift a house to your children, and there will be no taxes on that, if the value of your home is less than the $11.58 million. However, you must file a gift tax form when you do your annual taxes. As long as the value is below that amount, it should just be a matter of filing the form and not paying any fees.

Look at total value of your estate and your home. File a gift tax form with the IRS in the year that you gift the home and offset the total amount of the gift by first using your annual gift-tax exclusion of $15,000. This is per donee and per donor, so if you and your spouse jointly own the property and you gift it to multiple children, you can up the exclusion amount.

You shouldn’t apply for Medicaid within five years of gifting your home to your child, because there may be a transfer penalty if you gift assets just before applying for Medicaid benefits.

Can You Sell the House and Gift the Money? You can sell the home at current market value, then gift that money to your child. You can do this in a will or trust or give it to them directly. You could also sell the home to your child at a very low price. They’d get the house and can sell it themselves at a higher value when the time is right for them to do so. However, they may have to pay higher taxes when they do.

Selling your Home to Your Child for $1? OK, you’re technically selling the house, so it’s not a gift. However, the remainder of the value of the house is considered a gift, so the gift tax rules still apply. If your child sells the house, they must report the entire difference as a gain, which means capital gains taxes.

If you want to sell your house to your child, you should consider selling it to them with a small down payment as a seller-financed sale. You’ll carry the note for the balance, and your adult child will make affordable payments. You can even offset what they pay you, by gifting them up to $15,000 per year (which is low enough not to trigger the gift tax). Since you’ve sold the home, it’s no longer a part of your estate, so you don’t have to worry about taxes on your end.

Reference: savingadvice.com (July 29, 2020) “Use These Tips to Pass Your House to Your Heirs Tax-Free”