As was the case in 2016, no major changes in federal and Virginia estate and gift tax laws arrived on January 1, 2017. However, there are big changes on the horizon. First off, President Trump promised during his campaign to work to repeal federal death taxes. In addition, repeal of the Affordable Care Act would most likely be accompanied by repeal of the Net Investment Income Tax, which affects married couples with incomes exceeding $250,000 and trusts or estates with retained income exceeding $12,400 (for tax year 2016).
At this writing, though, such changes are only proposals, so it’s wise to plan using the laws and regulations we have. And here’s what we have right now, for tax year 2017.
COLA increase in the lifetime exclusion amount for estate and gift taxes
Our current federal Internal Revenue Code”unifies” the estate tax and the gift tax, providing for a combined tax credit that allows people both to make taxable gifts during their lifetimes and to transfer estate property to heirs at their deaths free of federal taxes up to a certain total amount. That amount increases each year to adjust for inflation, and for persons dying in 2017, the new exclusion amount will be $5.49 million. (Call it a round 5-1/2 million if you like. That’s a $40,000 increase over 2016.)
You might think this amount is high enough to prevent you from having to think about federal estate taxes. However, keep in mind that this amount includes not just the value of financial assets and real estate that you own, but also the payout values of your retirement plans and any life insurance that you own at your death. When calculating how close you are to taxability, be sure to include the value of any death benefits and group life insurance that your employer might provide.
No increase in the annual exclusion amount for gifts
The Code’s gift tax provisions are written to apply to even small gifts. However, Congress in its beneficence has provide for an “annual exclusion” that exempts from gift taxation and reporting gifts up to a specified amount. That amount is also adjusted for inflation, but only when thousand-dollar increments are exceeded. For 2017, the annual exclusion remains at $14,000, the same as it has been since 2013.
A few reminders about the annual gift tax exclusion. First, you can give up to $14,000 to as many different people as you want. So if your estate is at, above, or near the lifetime exclusion amount mentioned above, making annual gifts to your children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews might be a good way to make sure they come to visit you often (as well as keeping your family’s money out of Uncle Sam’s wallet).
Also, there are several categories of gifts that can exceed this amount without incurring gift taxes or using up your lifetime exemption. Most people can make unlimited tax-free gifts to their spouses (except for noncitizen spouses – tax-free gifts to them are limited to $149,000 in 2017). Moreover, money you spend on medical care or education for someone else isn’t treated as a taxable gift so long as you pay the school, college, or medical care provider directly. (Directly means you write the check or incur the credit charge. Reimbursements of others don’t qualify.)
As always, contact me if you have any questions about maximizing or using your lifetime or annual exclusions from estate and gift taxes.