Primer on Spousal Access Trusts – What you need to know about this important estate planning technique!

Very often we meet clients looking for a more nuanced estate planning with specific assets – they may want to (1) protect assets from creditors; or (2) they would like to minimize the estate tax liability upon death. For these clients, Irrevocable Trusts are a critical piece of advanced estate planning that can accomplish these goals. It is important to remember here that these trusts are set up in addition to (and not in lieu of) their foundational planning, which typically consists of Wills or Revocable Living Trusts, as well as the Financial or Healthcare Powers of Attorney.

Irrevocable Trusts come in many flavors – insurance trusts or ILITs, gifting trusts for children, residence trusts or QPRTs, and a whole lot more in between. These trusts can either be established locally (i.e. situs of the trust is New Jersey), or a NJ resident can situs his or her trust in other U.S. states with favorable Domestic Asset Protection Trust laws (also called DAPT states).

This post discusses the popular Spousal Access Trusts or SLATs, where the spouse of the Grantor or Settlor of the trust is a named beneficiary, while the trust continues to accomplish its primary objectives regarding creditor protection and estate tax savings. It is key to remember here that if the 2-SLAT approach is being utilized (one trust each for the husband and the wife), then utmost care must be taken by the drafter of these trusts to ensure the trusts are not identical to one another, which would run afoul of the reciprocal trust doctrine.

Consider the following when establishing these trusts in New Jersey:

  • Pros:
    • There is no need to get an outside Independent Trustee who is a resident – a trusted friend would be able to serve in this role.
    • There is no need for outside counsel review.
    • You can accomplish the current asset protection goals even with the spouse as a beneficiary, but the Grantor[1] of the trust cannot become a beneficiary of the trust if the two primary objectives of creditor protection and estate tax savings are desired.
  • Cons:
    • The Grantor cannot be (or be added back later) as a named beneficiary.
    • Death of a spouse-beneficiary can make things problematic for the Grantor, who will now no longer have access to the funds in the trust.
    • If the 2-SLAT approach is being used, then there is higher probability of IRS scrutiny if both trusts are sitused in NJ.

However, if we go outside the state of NJ to one of the DAPT states[2], these trusts become more sophisticated and robust, but are also expensive – not only for set up but also in annual costs. The following are some considerations:

  • Pros:
    • The Grantor can be added back as a beneficiary after the trust is set up.
    • There are greater asset protection laws in these DAPT states, so creditor challenges are much harder.
    • With the 2-SLAT approach, situsing these trusts in two different DAPT states ensures even greater asset protection.
    • Resident Trustees can be Directed Trustees where they are only acting upon the direction of another – this keeps costs down each year.
    • This approach has potential to avoid IRS/Creditor scrutiny, especially where an independent, objective third party is serving as a trustee.
  • Cons:
    • This route is more expensive, because these are sophisticated trusts part of advanced planning.
    • Co-counsel needs to be retained to get the trusts reviewed by attorneys in that state.
    • Resident Trustees are a requirement.
    • Although trustees may be “Directed Trustees,” depending on the DAPT state, annual fees may vary between states and could become quite costly.

To minimize costs, some alternate solutions include:

  1. Staying within NJ and set up both trusts within the state, but be willing to give up some of the added benefits of DAPTs.
  2. Creating one trust in a DAPT jurisdiction and another trust in NJ, so you can take advantage of the “pros” for at least one trust, where the Grantor can be named back as the beneficiary.

 

 

 

[1] Grantor refers to the individual setting up the trust and is often used interchangeably with the terms Trustor or Settlor.

[2] As of 2020, there are at least 19 states that are now considered to be DAPT states and which have amended their statues to offer strong creditor protection and favorable treatment towards Grantors’ irrevocable trusts. http://www.actec.org/assets/1/6/Shaftel-Comparison-of-the-Domestic-Asset-Protection-Trust-Statutes.pdf

Navigating Cultural Differences in Estate Planning

For those of you who don’t know, I am of South Asian descent. I grew up in Bangalore, India and came to the United States as a young adult in the 1980s. Growing up, I was surrounded by extended family members – my aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents were part of my everyday world. It wasn’t until I came to the United States that I discovered that the family structure I was accustomed to was not a familiar concept in the United States. Culturally, in India the family structure is very different from that of its US counterpart  – we treat our extended family as part of our nucleus. Although less common now,  the “joint family system” was the norm for many Indian families, and some households still function like this today. In the joint family system, the oldest son typically does not leave the family home.  Instead, after he gets married, his new wife joins her husband in the family home. Children are then raised in the family home, growing up alongside their cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents. In fact, in Indian culture, cousins are referred to as “cousin-brother” and “cousin-sister”, which I think is an excellent illustration of how close extended family members are. I was surprised to discover this term was alien in the United States!

So why does all this matter in the context of estate planning? Because at the heart of estate planning is family, and the US legal system considers family much differently than India, especially  when it comes to estate, inheritance, or gift taxes. For example, in estate planning cases US law treats extended family differently than how it treats the immediate nuclear family. As a result, I am often confronted with a situation among my South-Asian clients where uncles and aunts, who treat their nieces and nephews as their own children, are bewildered that there is a separate taxation structure if they wanted to divide their estate equally among their children, nieces, and nephews.

There is also a culture clash when it comes to attorney-client privilege. For many South Asian families, it is presumed that sons or sons-in-law who become the head of the household (when the father or father-in-law passes away) can speak on behalf of their parents or in-laws when it comes to estate planning. This is compounded when not all members of the family speak English fluently.  Many South Asian immigrants (most commonly homemaker wives) who came to the US in the mid 20th century never really became fluent in the English language and must rely on their children to serve as interpreters for them.

However, according to N.J.S.A 2A: 84A-20 (3), a client is a someone who consults with a lawyer for the purpose of getting legal advice, and any communication that is made during this relationship is subject to attorney-client privilege.  The client expects that the attorney will act in the best interests of the client at all costs and will protect the client from any undue influence. The presence of some other person could nullify this privilege and could lead to disclosure in a court of law.  Most Will contests are due to the presence of a third person (a sibling, a friend etc.) in the room  who may be unduly influencing the client to set up a Will that may be contrary to his or her initial objectives.

Therefore, for US attorneys who are not familiar with the Indian family dynamics, there is confusion and misunderstanding when they represent their Indian clientele and discover that they are not just interacting with the individual or couple who signed the engagement agreement, but often their extended  family as well! The attorneys are (and rightfully so!) concerned that: (1) there may be ulterior motives behind the children asking to speak on behalf of the entire family; (2) there is no clear understanding on who is the client really is in this situation – especially if the person who is paying the attorney fee is the child; and (3) there is destruction of attorney-client privilege due to the presence of a third party (even though the third party is an adult child).

As a lawyer of South Asian descent, I have a unique advantage when working with Indian families to create an estate plan. I understand the nuances of Indian culture enough to parse through the various family dynamics to see if there are in fact any ulterior motives that may negatively impact my clients. I am also able to communicate with an elderly client in a few of the Indian languages to see if the clients really want their child or children to speak on their behalf for the remainder of the representation. Based off my experience, one way we can circumvent the  stringent rules for attorney-client privilege to account for  the cultural differences is to have clients execute broad powers of attorney that name their children and/or extended family as the authorized representatives of the clients to communicate on their behalf.  Although this may also be of concern should there be an abuse of this power, at least for the right family situation, this can  serve as a good simple option.

 

SSI and Spousal Impoverishment Standards for 2021

Every year the Social Security Administration publishes its list of Supplemental Security Income & Spousal Impoverishment Standards that are adjusted for inflation. These standards define the minimum and maximum amount of resources and income limits that an individual and/or their spouse can have in order to be on Medicaid. Here are the new numbers for 2021 (also available on the Medicaid Website):

 

Individual Limits

Income Cap Limit for an Individual: $2,382.00 per month

Resource Cap for an Individual: $2,000 per month (same as previous year)

 

Spousal Limits

Minimum Monthly Maintenance Needs Allowance (MMNA): $2,155.00

Maximum Monthly Maintenance Needs Allowance: $3,259.50

 

Community Spouse Resources:

Minimum Resource Standard: $26,076.00

Maximum Resource Standard: $130,380.00

 

Home Equity Limits:

Minimum: $603,000.00

Maximum: $906,000.00

 

The expense of nursing home care can devastate a family’s resources as expenses for a nursing home rise. Currently, a stay at a skilled nursing facility can easily cost $15,000 or more per month. It seems hard to fathom how a couple can survive on the above thresholds, especially if there is a “Community Spouse” (i.e. spouse living in the community). There are strict rules for the use of income of the spouse on Medicaid and an even stricter limit for resources. These rules are complex and hard to navigate. However, with the proper legal guidance and direction, you can help plan for your or your loved one’s nursing home care costs, or plan to receive home and community-based waiver services. Whether you or a loved one is looking to qualify for Medicaid or continue to remain eligible for Medicaid to supplement the cost of long-term care, Rao Legal Group is here to help! Contact us via our website at www.EstateElderPlanning.com or call our office at 609-372-2855 to see how we can help you!

The Unicorn of Long-Term Care Insurance

As an estate planning firm that also specializes in elder law, we are always heartened to see a potential Medicaid applicant client’s portfolio containing a long-term care insurance (“LTCI”) policy. This is because, as planners, we know that the client is uniquely positioned to take advantage of creative strategies to accelerate his or her eligibility for Medicaid while protecting some assets from getting swooped up to pay for long term care.  More importantly, it buys us and our clients precious time to think and plan.

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As excited as we are when a potential Medicaid applicant has a long-term care insurance policy, we get even more excited for the rare moment when we discover that the client’s long-term care insurance policy participates in the New Jersey Long-Term Care Insurance Partnership Program – making them “unicorns” among LTCI plans! This is truly a happy occurrence because in these cases we can protect assets by setting aside amounts equal to the insurance benefits received from such a policy so that such assets are treated as “unavailable” or “disregarded” for Medicaid qualification purposes.

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Here is how it works–

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Medicaid has strict limitations on income and assets.  Typically, an unmarried individual Medicaid Applicant (Institutionalized or Ill Spouse) can only have $2000 in resources.  For a married couple, the spouse of the Medicaid applicant (“Community Spouse”) can only keep $130,380 in resources (2021 figures).  These numbers are adjusted for inflation, and every year the government circulates information establishing the thresholds for the following year. If an individual has more assets then the established threshold when applying for Medicaid, he or she is at  risk for being considered over-resourced and therefore would be denied eligibility.

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Due to these strict thresholds, elder law attorneys like myself analyze our client’s countable assets that are deemed “available” for Medicaid purposes and separate those from exempt or “unavailable” assets prior to submitting the application. We want to ensure as much as of the client’s assets as possible are exempt from Medicaid and any excess assets are “spent down” in a Medicaid permissible manner to achieve the maximum benefits.

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This is where long term care insurance and the NJ Long-Term Care Insurance Partnership Program comes in.

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The Partnership Program is a public/private arrangement between the state government and private long-term care insurers to assist individuals in planning for their long-term care needs.  People who purchase these specific types of policies can protect more of their assets should they later need to have the state pay for their long-term care. According to the bulletin issued by the State of New Jersey, “These special rules generally allow the individual to protect assets equal to the insurance benefits received from a Partnership Policy so that such assets will not be taken into account in determining financial eligibility for Medicaid and will not subsequently be subject to Medicaid liens and recoveries”1. For example, if you received $100k in benefits under your long-term care insurance, you may be allowed to protect an additional $100k in assets at the time you apply for Medicaid through a feature known as “Asset Disregard” under the New Jersey Medicaid Program.

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Our office has had the good fortune of being presented with such a “unicorn-like” situation recently.  Because of  our thorough oversight together with our patience & persistence working with the Medicaid caseworkers, we were able to  have them disregard a significant amount of our client’s assets over and above the Medicaid threshold limits and get  our client eligible for Medicaid.  The amount set aside in turn has helped the Community Spouse retain more of the assets than originally anticipated, which became a win-win for all.

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If you have a stand-alone long term care insurance policy, look at the benefits to see if you have this “unicorn plan” or call your agent to find out.  And if and when the time comes where the policy needs to be triggered, call our office immediately so we can provide the proper assistance and guidance on what your next steps ought to be.

 

  1. 1. The Deficit Reduction Act of 2005, Public Law 109-171, (the “DRA”) allows for the expansion of Qualified Long Term Care Insurance Partnership Programs by states (nj.gov)

Documents in Advanced Health Directives, and Why They Are More Important Now Than Ever

Amidst an ongoing pandemic, you may have heard some well-meaning declarations urging you to make sure your health care documents are in order. However, there are many kinds of health care documents, and it can be difficult to know what you need and what gaps there may be in any documents you already have prepared. This article is not intended to serve as legal advice, but it may provide an overview of the available types of health care documents so that you are prepared to speak to an attorney about ensuring you have a plan in place that is comprehensive and accurately represents your wishes.

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The first and most general document is the HIPAA waiver. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) sets national standards for the protection of personally identifiable health information. Because of this Act, doctors and other health care professionals are limited as to who they may share health information with, including family members of their patients. A HIPAA waiver authorizes doctors, hospitals, and long-term care facilities to disclose protected health information to certain individuals named in the document. A public health emergency does not mean HIPAA no longer applies; while certain jurisdictions have adjusted guidelines to allow doctors to communicate with those involved in the coordination of care, without a waiver in place, communication is not guaranteed. Executing a HIPAA waiver when competent makes clear who you want your doctors and other caretakers to speak to and give advice regarding your care. Without one, family and friends may be unable to receive information from doctors while you are being treated, which can add additional stress and uncertainty to a situation that is already stressful for your loved ones.

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While many advanced health care directives include a section for HIPAA rights, if this is separated out into a stand-alone document, then not everyone who you may name in a HIPAA waiver needs to be or should be able to make health care decisions on your behalf. In that case, to give someone that power, you should execute a Health Care Power of Attorney (HCPOA). A power of attorney is a document that allows named people to act in your place. Many people are familiar with this kind of document as it relates to finances (authorizing someone to deal with your bank on your behalf, organize to have your bills paid, etc.), but it exists for your healthcare too. A HCPOA names someone who can legally make decisions about your care with health care providers. Depending on what powers you include, this document may authorize them to consent to (or refuse to consent to) your medical treatment, hire or fire medical personnel, make decisions about the best medical facilities for you, visit you when visiting is otherwise restricted, gain access to your medical records, and get court authorization if a hospital or doctor refuses to honor your own wishes or your authority as the authorized representative. A HCPOA does not automatically authorize someone to consent or refuse consent to organ donation, as the document’s authority terminates upon your death. However, in some states as in New Jersey, you may choose to draft the document in a way that covers authority over the disposition of your body. Additionally, you may even choose to have your healthcare representative make end-of-life decisions if you do not want to execute a Living Will (see more on that below) which shifts the responsibility over to one or more doctors. Therefore, the importance of this document is immense. Instead of only relying on doctors who you may have a limited or no relationship with, you can designate someone you trust to carry out your wishes regarding end of life if you are unable to. Although most states allow family members to step in as care coordinators (with an order of preference usually beginning with the spouse), a lack of this document can still be problematic and cause unnecessary tension and stress on the family in deciding the best course of action thereby taking precious time away from coping with your illness.

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Complementing the two above documents, especially if you have particular intentions on end-of-life decisions, is the Living Will. The Living Will lays out specific directions about types of treatment you want or do not want should you go into a terminal state where there is no meaningful chance of your recovery. It can be as comprehensive or as limited as you want, depending on your preferences of different types of treatment. Typical procedures mentioned in a Living Will might be blood transfusions, CPR, dialysis, use of a respirator, surgery, or palliative care. Particularly amidst the continued spread of the COVID-19 pandemic and as people realize that they may not desire to be put on a respirator should they be hospitalized with this illness (where a number of people who need to be hospitalized end up on respirators), you should consider whether you want to revisit these preferences noted in this document. This is especially important when you may not have communicated your preferences to your HCPOA. Without a Living Will, the person making health care decisions on your behalf will have to guide those decisions. It’s a significant burden that you will be imposing on him or her so you should make thoughtful decisions. You should speak to both your elder care attorney and members of your family to decide the pros and cons of executing a Living Will, and if one should be included in your plan. Having this important discussion ahead of time will allow you to decide whether or not entrusting family with this decision is a good idea.

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Finally, there is another document called the POLST or Practitioner Orders for Life Sustaining Treatment. Similar to a Living Will, this is also a directive for a specific method of care during the end of life stages; however, a POLST is typically executed somewhat later on than a Living Will might be. They are generally intended for patients who are at risk of a life-threatening clinical event or who may experience a life-threatening clinical event while already under facility care (thus, most facilities have long-term residents sign one upon entry). It is a form made legal with a signature from you (or your agent) and your doctor that is portable between different medical institutions like hospitals and nursing homes, or even to your home, without needing to be changed each time. Every state has its own form, but there is some reciprocity across states. POLST forms are often filled out by a nurse or social worker when someone is admitted to the hospital and the patient is at risk of significant deterioration; this is what makes them so important right now. In June 2020, ventilators have become vitally necessary for many patients suffering from severe cases of COVID-19. At-risk groups such as the elderly or those with underlying medical conditions have difficulty coming off a ventilator, and some people would rather die in dignity than spend weeks or months on a ventilator or other artificial life-extending device. However, if that person does not have proper documentation directing their health providers to follow their wishes—if they don’t tell a doctor or loved one that they don’t want a ventilator—the patient will be put on a ventilator if the situation arises and it is necessary to prolong life.

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When we consider health care documents from these perspectives, it is clear that a lack of articulated intentions results in stress, confusion, and poor health outcomes (where a positive health outcome is measured by patient satisfaction with care as well as physical health). The creation of advanced health directives is an action taken to protect both yourself and your loved ones from unnecessary grief in the future. Planning for incapacity, no matter the source of the incapacity, is a vital part of any sound estate plan that is unfortunately sometimes overlooked until it is too late. The best thing you can do to prepare yourself and your loved ones is speak to a specialized estate planning attorney to implement your own advanced health directives. Rao Legal Group, LLC (“RLG”) is committed to providing comprehensive estate plans which always include advanced health care directives and financial powers of attorney to help you and your loved ones plan for incapacity. We are only a phone call away.

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  1. 1. https://www.hhs.gov/hipaa/for-professionals/special-topics/hipaa-covid19/index.html
  2. 2. https://www.nolo.com/legal-encyclopedia/living-will-power-of-attorney-29595.html
  3. 3. https://www.nolo.com/legal-encyclopedia/living-will-power-attorney-medical-issues-29536.html
  4. 4. “Importance of POLST During the COVID-19 Pandemic” webinar given by Goals of Care Coalition of New Jersey

Getting Documents Signed Amid Coronavirus Precautions

During this time of worldwide uncertainty, many of us are facing huge portions of our lives suddenly being moved online. Telecommuting has proven that we can do plenty of our daily activities from home—but there are still limitations. Historically, the signing and notarization of estate planning documents is not something that can be done without all participants sitting together at a table with the physical documents between them. In many places and for many kinds of documents, this is still true, but remote online notarization is a practice that is gaining more recognition.

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In New York, Governor Cuomo recently signed an executive order amidst coronavirus precautions allowing the use of remote online notarization statewide; this is an unprecedented usage of executive orders.1 Some have called for guidance from the highest state courts regarding this action, seeking assurance that the order will be allowed to stand before its validity is confirmed. At the same time, other states are considering the option to take similar measures in order to respond to the spread of coronavirus worldwide—these orders may have even been signed by the time of this reading.

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For a few weeks, New Jersey lagged behind many states who had already jumped on the bandwagon. Both houses of the New Jersey state legislature debated whether “certain notarial acts” could be performed remotely since mid-March, but it took until nearly a month later for an Act to be signed into law. On April 14, Governor Murphy signed a bill into law that allows for certain kinds of remote notarization during the Public Health Emergency and State of Emergency declared by the governor in Executive Order 103 of 2020.2 Frustratingly, this Act excludes the signing of wills and codicils. However, it is at least applicable for matters such as the creation of HIPAA waivers, healthcare directives, and powers of attorney.3 Firms have developed creative strategies to sign estate planning documents during the past month of waiting to hear whether the bill would pass; now that we have a path forward, we can use remote online notarization in conjunction with these strategies to ensure that we continue to serve our clients’ needs without face to face conference room type meetings.

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Overall, 23 states have approved remote online notarization in some capacity, though the requirements and breadth of this ability differ from state to state. Efforts are underway to establish federally recognized remote online notarization.4 The SECURE Notarization Act is a proposed bill in the Senate that aims to do exactly that, legalizing remote online notarizations nationwide—possibly immediately, should it be passed. Currently, the text of the bill is not available, but a summary of the bill indicates that it will provide minimum security standards for the usage of remote online notarization as well as provide certainty for recognition of online notarization between states. States would continue to have the flexibility to implement their own remote online notarization standards above the federal baseline.

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As with many other things during the unfolding COVID-19 outbreak, the status of New Jersey’s remote online notarization is still uncertain as the situation continues to unfold. If you are concerned about how best to get your documents executed within the state during this time, the best thing you can do is speak to a specialized estate planning attorney who you can trust to evaluate your options and explain what options may potentially be on the way in the coming days to look out for. Here at Rao Legal Group, LLC (“RLG”) we are utilizing phone calls and video conferences to continue to provide our clients with the outstanding service we are known for while keeping the distance necessary to protect our communities. We are available to help you—call us today to learn more about how we can help you prepare for the future at a time when it’s more important than ever to do so.

 

  1. 1. https://www.governor.ny.gov/news/no-2027-continuing-temporary-suspension-and-modification-laws-relating-disaster-emergency
  2. 2. https://www.njleg.state.nj.us/bills/BillView.asp?BillNumber=A3903
  3. 3. https://www.njleg.state.nj.us/bills/BillView.asp?BillNumber=A3864
  4. 4. https://senatorkevincramer.app.box.com/s/baz8p9czm0bijkicxbeb7mb7cxby7mio

Gift-Giving and Taxes

‘Tis the season of giving—this December, countless gifts have been and will be exchanged between families, friends, coworkers and neighbors. In America, even many people who don’t celebrate gift-giving holidays like Christmas exchange gifts at the end of the year in accordance with the traditions of their friends and families. The last thing any of us want to be thinking about while selecting or opening gifts, is taxes, and normally, we don’t have to. But, if the end of the year has inspired you to think about bigger gifts—like property, or perhaps a new car for your loved one—here are some things you may want to be aware of before you actually write out that check.

 

Every individual currently has a lifetime estate and gift tax exemption which can either be gifted during your lifetime or left to one or more individuals as part of your estate after your death. There is no gift or estate tax owed to the federal government for gifts below the exemption amount. In 2019, the exemption is $11.4 million per person ($22.8 million for a married US citizen couple). However, this amount is not set in stone and a lot may depend on who is at the helm running the country. For example, before the 2019 tax law changes went into effect, the estate and gift tax exemption was $5.25 million and prior to 2012, it was at $3.5 million per person. If we listen to the media right now, there are talks that we may very well be going back to the $3.5 million amount even as early as next year. Since the IRS has clarified that those individuals making gifts now in order to take advantage of the current exclusion amounts will not be adversely affected should there be a decrease in the future, making large gifts now may not be a bad idea.

 

Keep in mind, the lifetime exemption exclusion amount is not the only amount to consider when gifting—in addition to your lifetime estate and gift tax exemption, there is a $15,000 annual gift tax exclusion (2019 amounts). This amount is per donor per year, so a joint gift from spouses to a child and the child’s spouse can add up to as much as $60,000 per year gift to your child and his or her spouse. Once you exceed that amount, the excess gift will be deducted from the overall lifetime exclusion amount. There is no gift tax, but the excess gift needs to be reported on a gift tax return the following year along with your income tax filing.

 

A few points to note: In your haste to see the surprise and joy on your loved one’s face, do not gift away highly appreciated property. We have a lot of families who deed over their primary residences or gift stock that they had purchased several years ago that have accumulated significant gain. This could result in an unexpected and adverse capital gains tax at the time of sale. Finally, if you or your loved one is a non-US citizen, be careful to consider the specific nuances associated with gift giving, as the rules slightly differ here: see what I have written about previously in New Jersey Law Journal.

 

There are few things better than the warm feeling you get from seeing a loved one enjoy a gift you have given them—but it will benefit both of you in the long run if you are intentional about your gift-giving and plan out ways to avoid tax inefficiencies in doing so. When making gifts, speak to your estate planning attorney, your CPA and your financial advisor to make sure that you approach gift-giving the right way and you can begin the New Year with your right foot forward.