When does my generosity, or my desire to give gifts during my life, trigger the application of federal tax laws regarding gift taxes? Consider the following scenarios:
- Declan wants his daughter Fiona to receive his residence at his death. He and his late wife purchased the property for $30,000 in the early 1950s. He signs and records a deed in 2015 that conveys the property to himself and Fiona as joint tenants. As of the date of the conveyance, the property is worth $300,000. He continues to reside there and to pay all property taxes, insurance and maintenance.
- Teresa opens a bank account in 2014 and transfers $500,000 to the account. She names herself and her son Juan as joint tenants with right of survivorship at the time she opens the account. Under the account terms, both Teresa and Juan have the right to withdraw the entire amount of the bank account at any time. Juan does not withdraw any funds from the account the first year. He withdraws $40,000 in 2015 to pay his college tuition.
Has Declan or Teresa made a taxable gift? If so, when was the gift made and for how much? Could either of them have achieved the same result but avoided the gift tax rules?
The gift tax is a tax imposed on certain gifts made during life. Not every gift is taxable. The IRS allows a generous annual exemption, currently $14,000, per donee. This means you may give up to $14,000 each year to an unlimited number of recipients without having to file a gift tax return. (The amount was established at $10,000 and is increased periodically for inflation; it has been $14,000 since 2013). Also, you may give unlimited gifts to your spouse (if a U.S. citizen) or to §501(c)(3) charities without incurring a tax. You may also pay tuition for education and medical bills on another’s behalf without tax consequence if you pay such amounts directly to the educational institution or health care provider.
Even if you make gifts that are taxable, Congress has provided for a unified credit that allows you to make otherwise taxable gifts throughout life and at death up to a sum total of $5,450,000 (for those who die in 2016) without paying a gift or estate tax. The credit is “unified” in the sense that it is applied both to gifts made during your life time and to gifts made at death from your trust or estate, up to the maximum credit. Each year the unified credit is adjusted upward for inflation. Gifts made above that amount are taxed at a whopping 40%.
Returning to our examples, the fact is that both Declan and Teresa have made taxable gifts that require a gift tax return to be prepared and filed with the IRS; and both could have avoided this result with some good legal advice and planning.
Declan has made a taxable gift of one half the value of the real property, or $150,000, to Fiona. He can count the first $14,000 toward the annual exclusion, but he still must file a gift tax return for the remaining $136,000. Even worse, since the transfer was made during his life time, if and when Fiona sells the house after his death she will have to pay a capital gains tax on the increase in value from the $30,000 purchase price. Had Declan conveyed the property to her at his death, she would have received a step up in basis, meaning the base price for considering a capital gains tax would have been the value at his date of death, rather than the value of the original purchase in the 1950s. This would have been a huge tax savings to Fiona. It would also have eliminated the requirement of the gift tax return.
Teresa makes a gift of $40,000 to Juan in 2015 when he withdraws that amount from the account. She must file a gift tax return for the gift, after offsetting the amount of the annual exclusion. The joint bank account is treated differently than a joint tenancy in real property; until and unless Juan withdraws money from the account over and above any contribution he may have made to the account, there is no gift because Teresa can still withdraw the whole amount. Here, Teresa could have paid Juan’s school directly for the tuition without any gift tax consequence.
Note that for both Declan and Teresa, assuming no previous gifts have been made, no actual tax is due because the unified credit will cover these relatively modest amounts; but the hassle and cost of preparing the gift tax return could have been avoided. Moreover, if either has an estate that will exceed the unified credit at the time of death, these gifts will have negative consequences for their estates.
If you are thinking of making a large gift, it is well worth consulting with your accountant or estate planning lawyer to ensure you take advantage of the gift and estate tax rules to minimize or eliminate your tax liability.