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Federal Gift Tax Considerations

Keeping Away The Holiday Grinch:
Federal Gift Tax Considerations

Each year, the approaching Holidays spark questions about the federal gift tax and its applicability to year-end gifts.  We all quite naturally want to make gifts in this season so that we can watch our loved ones enjoy them.  For those who can afford to do so, this also becomes an opportunity to transfer wealth that may otherwise be taxed in the future for income or estate tax purposes.  Typically, a question I often get from clients is “please remind me again how much am I allowed to give…?  The simple but unresponsive answer to the question is that a person may give away whatever he or she wants.  Aside from proscriptions against defrauding creditors, there is no law restricting how much one may give away.  It is the costs of making the gifts that in reality define the situation.  Among those costs, as this article will explain, are the potential ramifications of the federal gift tax.

Gift Tax Considerations for Donors

The federal gift tax is a levy that the federal government collects from donors for the privilege of making gifts, i.e., transfers of property and other valuable interests without receiving value (“consideration”) in return.  Besides raising revenue, its purposes are to underpin the federal estate tax (i.e., the federal governments levy on decedents for the privilege of passing wealth after death) and the federal income tax.  Because of the federal gift tax, taxpayers may not defeat the estate tax by giving away their assets before they die.  At the same time, the gift tax theoretically prevents high bracket income taxpayers from giving away income-producing assets to lower bracket taxpayers to force the income taxation on such income at the recipient’s lower brackets (before the income recipient returns the property and/or its income to the donor).  The federal gift tax does not prohibit taxpayers from making gifts of any size.  It merely means that if one makes a taxable gift that is not otherwise exempt, as discussed below, the federal government may impose a 40% excise tax on the value of the gift transferred.  If applicable, that tax becomes a cost that the donor needs to consider in making the gift.

Maryland does not have a comparable state gift tax, but transfers of a material part of a decedent’s property within two years before death and lifetime transfers by a decedent “in contemplation of death” may be subject to Maryland inheritance tax after the donor’s death.  Recall however that transfers made to spouses, lineal descendants, parents, grandparents, siblings, and qualified charities are in any case exempt from Maryland inheritance tax.

Lifetime Exemptions from Gift Taxation

Fortunately, Congress has decided that the gift tax should only apply to relatively wealthy people.  Like the federal estate tax and until January 1, 2026, federal gift tax is not currently imposed on an individual’s first $11.18 million in otherwise taxable transfers during his or her lifetime.  The Internal Revenue Service has recently announced that, with inflation, this amount will be $11.4 million starting in 2019.  Thus, while lifetime gifts reduce the amount of transfers that can be made estate tax-free after death, married individuals will have a total of some $22.8 million dollars after the end of 2018 that will be exempt from federal transfer taxes on gifts or post-mortem transfers.  And with “Portability”, surviving spouses may use whatever exemption goes unused by a first decedent spouse after his or her death if an estate tax return is filed for that spouse.

Unfortunately, current law provides that on January 1, 2026, these exemptions will be decreased by half.  For 2026 and beyond, the Internal Revenue Code will limit gift and estate tax-free transfers to a total of $5.7 million (plus an adjustment for future inflation), or a total of some $11.4 million for married couples.  Even if this reduction stands, the $5.7 million future exemption amount means that most individuals can make very substantial tax-free gifts if they choose to do so.

Gift Tax Deductions and Annual Exclusions

In addition to the lifetime exemptions from federal gift tax, the Internal Revenue Code also provides for deductions for the value of gifts made to spouses and charities.  Because of these deductions, transfers between spouses and contributions to charity do not generally reduce the taxpayers’ lifetime exemptions.  (For example, if a taxpayer makes a $20,000 transfer to his spouse, the net value of the gift becomes the $20,000 transferred minus a $20,000 marital deduction, or a net taxable gift of $0.)

Additional annual “exclusions” from gift tax are also available that are designed to allow smaller gifts without reducing the taxpayer’s available lifetime exemption.  In essence, these are the lifetime gifts (such as Holiday, anniversary and birthday gifts) with which the IRS does not wish to be bothered.  The federal government is actually pretty generous with these annual exclusions.  Every taxpayer may annually give any number of individuals up to a total of $15,000 each without such gifts reducing his or her lifetime gift and estate taxation exemption.  Moreover, spouses may combine their $15,000 annual exclusions so that one spouse may use all of this $30,000 combined exclusion.  (Such “split” gifts do, however, require the spouses to file a federal gift tax return for the year in question to alert the IRS that both are consenting to this combination, and the consent will apply to all gifts made by either during the year.)

The “wrinkle” for annual exclusion gifts is that they are limited to only those gifts the recipient can immediately enjoy.  Examples of these are gifts of cash or marketable securities made outright to a gift recipient and most ordinary Holiday, birthday, engagement, and wedding gifts.  These eligible annual exclusion gifts are known as “gifts of present value” as opposed to “future value gifts” that cannot be fully enjoyed until some future time.  Examples of future value gifts are transfers made to trusts for beneficiaries and gifts that don’t take effect until a future event.  Only gifts of present value are eligible for inclusion in a donor’s annual gift tax exclusion.  For future value gifts, the donor’s lifetime exemption must be applied to prevent gift taxation.

Annual Gift Tax Returns

For most individuals, the real problem with making gifts of future interests or gifts of present value in excess of the annual gift tax exclusions is the requirement that an annual Form 709 United States Gift Tax Return must be filed for years in which such gifts occur.  For most, the size of the lifetime exemptions is enough to prevent actual gift taxation, but the return is still required so that the federal government (and the donor) can track where the taxpayer stands with regard to his or her remaining exemption.  Like federal income tax returns, these Forms 709 are due by April 15th of the year following the taxable year and are somewhat arcane and difficult to prepare.  The cost of worrying about, preparing, and documenting these returns thus becomes the real cost of making gifts that are not covered by available annual exclusions. If all gifts made are present value gifts totaling less than $15,000 for each recipient, returns are not required.

In this context, what most people mean when they ask how much they are “allowed” to give is “how much may I give to family members and friends without complications like having to file a gift tax return?”  From that limited perspective the answer becomes (for 2018) up to $15,000 per person in total annual gifts (including Holiday and birthday presents) if such gifts may be immediately used and enjoyed by the recipients.

The Internal Revenue Service’s End of 2018 Gift to Wealthy Taxpayers

This description of Holiday gift taxation would not be complete without noting the Internal Revenue Service’s November 26th “gift” to the wealthy.  From the above description, you will note that a taxpayer may make a total of up to $11.4 million in lifetime exempt gifts before January 1, 2026, and spouses may make such nontaxable gifts before then totaling some $22.8 million.  What happens if an individual uses all of his $11.4 million lifetime exemption (or any part in excess of $5.7 million) before 2026 when the exemption is scheduled to be halved?  Prior to the IRS’ gift, a very real worry existed that the excess gifts over $5.7 million would be taxed for estate tax purposes when the donor dies because lifetime taxable gifts are added (“clawed back”) into a decedent’s taxable estate for estate tax purposes.  Worry not!  On November 26th, the Internal Revenue Service announced proposed regulations that will, in essence, increase the lifetime estate and gift tax exemption after 2025 by the value of the gifts given tax-free before 2026 in excess of the post-2025 exemption.  As a result, if these proposed regulations are finalized, the added exemption for the pre-2026 tax-free gifts will be locked in forever.  And to that, I say Merry Christmas!

On this happy note, we sincerely wish you and your loved ones a Joyful Holiday Season and a safe and healthy New Year.

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Saving State Income Taxes with Moveable Trusts

We recently reviewed and extolled the benefits of Inheritance Trusts in three blog posts on this website. Two of the principal benefits of such trusts are to provide creditor and divorce protection for beneficiaries on accumulated trust income and to immunize such accumulated trust income and capital gains from future estate taxation.

Inheritance Trusts can be created for beneficiaries using either wills or revocable trusts. One of the underappreciated benefits of revocable trust estate planning is the potential revocable trusts allow for saving future state income taxes on accumulated Inheritance Trust income. In this post, we discuss moveable trusts and how Inheritance Trusts created under revocable trust planning can reduce or avoid state income taxation on accumulated trust income.

Moveable Trusts

Trusts are moveable in three aspects: They are moveable with regard to the state law that controls the construction and interpretation of trust provisions. They are moveable as to the law governing how the trust is required to be administered. They are also, and separately, moveable with regard to the jurisdictions to which they are required to pay taxes.

Construction and Interpretation of Trust Provisions

In general, a trust settlor (“Trustmaker”) is free to select what state law governs the meaning and effect of the terms of his or her trust. The jurisdiction selected need not have any other connection to the trust, and the Trustmaker is free to select the governing law regardless of where the trust property may be physically located, whether it consists of real or personal property, and whether the trust was created by will or during the Trustmaker’s lifetime. The only limitations to this freedom of choice is that a court of equity will be reluctant to give effect to trust action based on the law of a state that is contrary to the declared public policy of the state in which the court sits.

If a Trustmaker fails to designate the law that is to control his or her trust, the meaning and effect of a trust’s terms are determined by the law of the jurisdiction having the most significant relationship to the matter at issue. In this situation, a court would consider such factors as the place of the trust’s creation, the actual physical location of trust property, and the residence of the Trustmaker, the trustee, or the trust’s beneficiaries.

If a Trustmaker has expressly chosen the state law intended to govern his or her trust, that choice may be changed in the future by the trustee or the trust beneficiaries. Trustmakers realize that information about one state’s laws may not be readily available to future trustees and/or beneficiaries, so most trusts include provisions specifying precisely how such changes in governing law may occur. Even absent such express authorization, Maryland trustees and beneficiaries (and those of many other states) can change the originally designated governing law by court action to modify the otherwise express terms of the trust by a showing that the modification is not inconsistent with a material purpose of the trust.

Where a Trustmaker has failed to designate the law that is to control his or her trust, the circumstances of the trust may also force a change in the governing state law. The location of the trust’s principal place of administration, assets, or the residence of the trustee or the trust’s beneficiaries may change, and thereby change the jurisdiction having the most significant relationship to a given matter at issue. Finally, the Maryland Trust Act specifies a procedure by which a trustee may change the principal place of a trust’s administration with acquiescence of qualified beneficiaries. (Following this procedure is not mandatory if, as is often the case, the Trustmaker has provided an easier alternative for the trustee or a “trust protector” to change the trust’s principal place of administration.)

Trust Administration

Usually, the law of the principal place where the trust is administered will govern administrative matters, and the law of the place of trust creation will govern a trust’s dispositive provisions. Since the cardinal rule of trust administration is to give effect to the intent of the Trustmaker, the Trustmaker can influence the governing law of trust administration and disposition by stating his or her intent in this regard. However, with regard to administration and disposition, a connection (or “nexus”) is required between the jurisdiction of choice and the activities of the trust itself. For example, if a Trustmaker chooses Maryland law to govern administration and disposition, something must occur in Maryland to connect the State to the trust, e.g., ownership of land in Maryland, carrying on a Maryland business, trustee residence or location in Maryland, or the occurrence of actual trust investment and/or accounting activities in Maryland. Here again, this choice of applicable law can be changed either by a change in trust circumstances or, so long as a connection exists with the new jurisdiction, by a formal change of the trust’s designated principal place of administration.

Trust State Income Taxation

With regard to what state can tax the income of a trust, the focus shifts from what the Trustmaker wanted (after all, what Trustmaker actually wishes for state income taxation?!) to whether a state has a sufficient connection to the trust and its income to allow it to tax that trust income. For example, regardless of a trust’s principal place of administration, Maryland (and most other states that have a state income tax) taxes a fiduciary who “is required to file a federal income tax return” and who receives “income . . . derived from a business, occupation, profession, or trade carried on in Maryland”. Absent a direct investment in a Maryland business enterprise or income derived in Maryland from “a business, occupation, profession, or trade”, however, the question becomes: what makes a trust sufficiently connected to the state to allow Maryland to tax its undistributed income?

Maryland answers this question by declaring that it has a sufficient connection to the trustee to tax non-Maryland source trust income if the “fiduciary” is a resident of Maryland. For purposes of Maryland income tax, that means the state can tax the income of “a fiduciary . .  . of a trust if:

  1. the trust was created, or consists of property transferred, by the will of a decedent who was domiciled in the State on the date of the decedent’s death;
  2. the creator or grantor of the trust is a current resident of the State; or
  3. the trust is principally administered in the State.”

In the case of an Inheritance Trust, the trust does not occur unless and until the Trustmaker dies, so the creator of grantor of the trust can no longer be a current resident of Maryland. Thus, whether or not the income of the trust can be taxed by Maryland comes down to whether “the trust was created, or consists of property transferred, by the will of a decedent who was domiciled in the State on the date of the decedent’s death” and whether “the trust is principally administered in the State”. The benefit of revocable trust estate planning is that Inheritance Trusts are not created by the will of a Maryland decedent. With regard to the income taxation of non-Maryland source income of an Inheritance Trust created under a revocable trust, the question thus comes down to where the trust is principally administered.

Moving the Inheritance Trust’s Principal Place of Administration

As noted above, a trust’s principal place of administration can be changed either under the terms prescribed by the Trustmaker in the trust instrument or by complying with Maryland’s statutory procedure. Often, such a change need only require notice to the trust’s qualified beneficiaries specifying:

(i)     The name of the jurisdiction to which the principal place of administration is to be transferred;

(ii)    the address and telephone number at the new location at which the trustee can be contacted;

(iii)   An explanation of the reasons for the proposed transfer;

(iv)   The date on which the proposed transfer is anticipated to occur; and

(v)    the date, not less than 60 days after the giving of the notice, by which the qualified beneficiary must notify the trustee of an objection to the proposed transfer.

If no qualified beneficiary objects to the change, the trustee then merely goes ahead with the change. Where previously authorized by the Trustmaker, even this notice and objection procedure may not be required because the notice procedure specified above is not mandatory if the Trustmaker deems otherwise.

Over the lifetime of a trust, such a change in principal place of administration can have a substantial financial impact, especially if an Inheritance Trust has a trustee who resides in Florida or another state that does not have a state income tax or whose income tax is lower than Maryland’s relatively expensive rates. Even where this may not be the case, it may be possible to add a co-trustee who “resides” in such a state and to whom the administration of the trust may be delegated. In the case of a corporate trustee located in such a state, the immunity from state income tax may offset the cost of paying a commission to the nonresident trustee.

As such, creating an Inheritance Trust under a revocable trust (rather than a will) plus the moveability of the trust can give rise to significant potential savings in future state income taxes on accumulated Inheritance Trust income.

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