This Thanksgiving, there are several things that we need to be grateful for—and hey, we are after all an estate planning firm, so naturally we’re talking from the estate planning perspective.
Many of you may already know that we are currently in a taxpayer favorable environment and so it behooves us all to at least take notice, if not take advantage of, some of the planning techniques that are still around for the foreseeable future. Changes may occur in the administration a lot sooner than we all anticipated, so the “wait and see” approach is now no longer prudent—being thankful for the current environment may mean acting now rather than later. Some of the tax law changes that are being talked about will directly impact YOU. It isn’t only the wealthiest people who need to pay attention; the moderate to high net worth client may have big changes waiting around the corner [fn: our definition of moderately wealthy is anyone who has or might soon have a net worth of 3.5 million dollars and above if single and over 7 million dollars if married (and U.S. citizens)].
The current gift exemption is the highest it’s ever been—but it might be going down:
Currently, our lifetime tax exemptions for gifting are $11.4 million per person; $22.8 million for a married couple (2019 amounts). This is both an estate and gift tax exemption, which means that if you don’t gift anything during your lifetime, your estate has this entire amount as an exemption upon your death for estate tax purposes. However, there are proposals in Congress to lower this amount—some to as low as $1 million for the gift exemption and $3.5 million for the estate exemption. While this may not be an immediate concern to most of us, it might become critical for those who are in the $3.5 to $7 million range in asset net worth as planning opportunities for those in that net worth range might be extremely limited.
Grantor trusts are highly tax efficient—but they may no longer be an option:
Until now, estate planners have been able to successfully set up irrevocable trusts as an estate planning strategy; these trusts remove an asset from a client’s name while allowing them to still take advantage of the client’s income tax brackets instead of the trust’s compressed tax brackets due to certain provisions in the tax code. However, now it seems like grantor trusts may no longer be a viable planning vehicle due to ongoing talks that the grantor trust may be eliminated. If that truly is the case, planning NOW ahead of those changes may be vital to avoid paying increased taxes as part of your estate.
GRATs remove taxes on asset appreciation—but they may also disappear:
Grantor retained annuity trusts (or GRATs) are commonly used as planning techniques to minimize taxes on certain taxable estates; they allow clients to pay taxes on the transfer of an asset upfront, meaning that any appreciation in the asset’s value will pass ownership at the end of the trust’s term tax-free. However, these may no longer be around by the end of 2020. This also means that wealthier clients may not be able to sell, loan or transfer assets to these trusts either, thereby removing these popularly used techniques from the planning vocabulary.
Irrevocable life insurance trusts (ILITs) allow clients to make large lifetime gifts—but they may be affected by the annual exclusion:
Until now, we have always recommended that grantors try to utilize unlimited annual exemptions per donee trust beneficiary so large annual premiums to trust would not need to be reported as eating into a client’s lifetime gift amount. However, there’s some talk about limiting the annual exclusion amount to $20,000 per year per donee and $10,000 per year per donor in total, so that strategy may be turned on its head. Estate planners need to think about the future of such strategies and what impact these changes will have on clients who have large premiums coming out this year into the trusts.
So what does this mean?
Not much for those with estates that fall well under the estate tax threshold as of right now (or even if there’s a decrease in exemption). But for those moderately wealthy and high net worth clients, it may be wise to start planning with the horizon in mind. Taking advantage of the high gift exemptions now might be a good idea, but doing it in such a way that it is protected inside of a trust is prudent. There is a lot of opportunity for families with either less wealthy parents or more wealthy children to allow them to either utilize their exemptions or their children’s exemptions to ensure planning strategies are implemented now (well before the 2020 storm happens) for maximum benefits no matter what comes in the future. This is especially true where spouses may need to transfer assets to one another to allow for enough time to pass between such transfers (i.e. 2019-2020) so that planning strategies for both spouses’ assets can be implemented.
For those clients with irrevocable life insurance trusts or ILITs, they might want to take advantage of paying the future premiums in advance of any changes to avoid being impacted negatively by the new annual gift exemptions proposed by the Democratic party in Congress.
Finally, while there is no guarantee that any of these above changes are going to be written into law, and we certainly do not want the tax tail to wag the estate planning dog, we can be both thankful and mindful at once. We currently have in place the highest recorded exemptions in history and access to a number of crucial strategies to preserve our clients’ assets. So if any of the information above concerns you and you want to benefit from implementing some of these techniques to grandfather them into your estate plan ahead of a potentially-changing tax regime, then we hope you will call our office right away so we can put into motion a plan that you can be thankful for—in 2020 and well beyond.