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Gift Tax Strategies

The current large gift tax applicable exclusion amount, low gift tax rates, depressed property values and low interest rates create a favorable environment for making certain gifts.

Federal gift tax basics

Annual exclusion. Each year, you can give a certain amount ($14,000 in 2015 and 2016) to as many individuals as you like gift tax free. The annual exclusion amount is per person, so you and a spouse can give up to $28,000 to each individual. A spouse also included same sex spouses where the couple is married legally in a state that recognizes the marriage.

Qualified transfers exclusion. You can give an unlimited amount on behalf of any individuals for tuition or medical expenses gift tax free. You must pay the amount directly to the educational or medical care provider.

Applicable exclusion amount. Gifts can also be sheltered by the applicable lifetime exclusion amount, which can protect gifts of up to $5,430,000 for 2015 ($5,450,000 for 2016). The dollar limit applies to all taxable gifts you make during life and to your estate at your death for federal estate tax purposes.

Basic planning

The first gifts you consider should generally be annual exclusion and qualified transfer gifts. You can make annual exclusion gifts to anyone for any purpose. The annual exclusion is lost in any year in which you do not use it. You can make unlimited gifts using the exclusion for qualified transfers, but gifts are limited to educational and medical purposes.

You and your spouse can split gifts that either of you make. Doing so allows you and your spouse to effectively use each other's annual exclusions and applicable exclusion amounts. For example, if you have 2 children, you and your spouse could make annual exclusion gifts totaling $52,000 to your children (2 spouses x 2 children x $14,000). If you make gifts of $56,000 for 10 years, you will have transferred $560,000 to your children gift tax free.

Next, consider gifts that are sheltered by the applicable exclusion amount. But remember that use of the applicable exclusion amount during life reduces the amount available for estate tax purposes at your death.

If you are likely to have a very large taxable estate at your death that could not be sheltered by the applicable exclusion amount, it might even make sense to make gifts that cause you to pay gift tax. For example, let's assume any additional transfer you make would be subject to the current top gift or estate tax rate of 40% and you make a taxable gift of $1 million to your child on which you pay $400,000 of gift tax. If instead you retained the $1,400,000 until death, $560,000 of estate tax would be due ($1,400,000 x 40%) and only $840,000 of the $1,400,000 would remain for your child. By making the taxable gift and paying gift taxes that reduced your taxable estate, you reduced taxes by $160,000 while increasing the amount transferred to your child by the same $160,000.

Gift considerations

If you have property whose value is depressed, now may be a good time to make a gift of it. The gift tax value of a gift is its fair market value, and a lower value means a smaller gift for gift tax purposes. However, you generally should not make gifts of property that would produce an income tax loss if sold (basis in excess of sales price). The person receiving the property would have a carryover basis and would not be able to claim the loss. In these cases, instead consider selling the property, claiming the loss, and making a gift of the sales proceeds.

Future appreciation on gifted property is removed from your gross estate for federal estate tax purposes. However, while property included in your estate generally receives a basis stepped up (or stepped down) to fair market value when you die, lifetime gifts do not. Therefore, you may wish to balance the gift tax advantage of a gift with carryover basis and income tax on gain if the property is sold against the income tax advantage of a stepped-up basis and estate tax (if any) if you retain the property until your death.

In the current low interest rate environment, you may wish to consider a grantor retained annuity trust (GRAT). In a GRAT, you transfer property to a trust, but retain a right to annuity payments for a term of years. After the trust term ends, the remaining trust property passes to your beneficiaries, such as family members. The value of the gift of a remainder interest is discounted for gift tax purposes to reflect that it will be received in the future. Also, if you survive the trust term, the trust property is not included in your gross estate for estate tax purposes. Any appreciation in the trust property that is greater than the IRS interest rate used to value the gift escapes gift and estate taxation. The lower the IRS interest rate, the more effective this technique generally is.

In the current low interest rate environment, you may also wish to consider a low-interest loan to family members. You are generally required to provide for adequate interest on the loan, or interest will be deemed for gift tax purposes. However, with the current low interest rates, you can provide loans at a very low rate and family members can effectively keep any earnings in excess of the interest they are required to pay you.