Feb 4, 2010
On January 1, 2010, the Federal Estate Tax, as we have known it for nearly 30 years, was repealed. But what that means to us as clients and planners is completely unclear. This result is symptomatic of the immovable, poliltical partisanship at all costs, ouit of touch with reality we call "representative" government in Washington, D. C. It is a situation that is untenable for U.S. citizens--clients and planners alike. Most of us are weary of the fighting, infighting and grandstanding behind these "representatives'" abuse of the statement "the American People want . . . " The reality is they lost touch with what we want years ago. Today, I will settle for a decision. Any decision. We can at least then know what to tell clients and how to plan their estates. Congress?? Are you listening?
This result is symptomatic of the immovable, political partisanship at all costs, out of touch with reality we call “representative” government in Washington, D.C. It is a situation that is untenable for U.S. citizens–clients and planners alike. Most of us are weary of the fighting, infighting and grandstanding behind these “representatives'” abuse of the statement “the American People want . . . . “ The reality is they lost touch with what we want years ago. Today, I will settle for a decision. Any decision. We can at least then know what to tell clients and how to plan their estates. Congress? Are you listening? (thought not).In 1981, Congress enacted the basic structure of the Federal Estate and Gift Tax we have worked with since then. A couple of years later, they “tweaked” the law, adding, among other items, a Generation Skipping Transfer Tax. The Estate Tax was imposed on the value an individual transferred on death. The Gift Tax was imposed on transfers during an individual’s lifetime. The Generation Skipping Tax (GSTT) was imposed--in addition to Estate and Gift Taxes–on transfer to generations further removed than an individual’s own children. This tax scheme contained a couple important exceptions. First, whenever assets are transferred between spouses, there is no tax on that transfer. This has been named the “Marital Deduction.” Mechanically this is a “deduction” on Estate and Gift Tax Returns, but in my view it is inaptly named. It really is a deferral–not a deduction. Because it is a deferral, it can be a trap for the unwary. If relied upon, a married couple might lose an entire exemption.
The second is the charitable deduction. This says that you get a dollar for dollar deduction from Estate and/or Gift Tax on every dollar transferred to charity. This can be a powerful planning tool. But there is a trap waiting for some who have used it in their trusts. I’ll address that below.
Effective in 1986, the maximum value an individual could transfer, during lifetime or at death, was $600,000 (we generally refer to this as an “exemption”). In the late 1990's the amount was incrementally increased from the original $600,000 to $1million. The $1million would have been reached in 2006.
When the “changing of the guard” from a Democrat-controlled Congress and Presidency to all-Republican control was completed in 2000, Congress passed the current law, which accelerated the incremental increases significantly, and eliminated the Estate Tax and the GSTT on January 1, 2010. Inexplicably, the Gift Tax remains in force, with a $1million dollar lifetime exemption. The big problem with this, however, is that the law that became effective in 2000, expires by its own terms on December 31, 2010.
Beginning January 1, 2011, unless Congress acts to change this, the maximum exemption will return to $1 million. In the meantime, we are in a proverbial “no man’s land” regarding planning.
What Should You Do?
If you have not done so already, you need to review your plans with your advisors, in light of this situation. In our practice, we have tried for a number of years, during this period of seemingly phrenetic change, to draft for flexibility. If your documents have not been recently reviewed and do not contain certain language providing for some of this flexibility, you, your spouse, or your children may be in for a rude surprise.
Formula Clauses in Trusts. This is an area which may catch some by surprise. The traditional trust (often referred to as a Credit-Shelter, Bypass, or A-B Trust) technique provides that on death, the maximum amount allowed to pass free of tax (historically, the amount of the exemption) is to be set aside in a trust which allows for limited use and benefit – but not transfer to the spouse and therefore not owned by the spouse. This is done to “bypass” the marital deduction and use all of the exemption (thus, the term “Bypass Trust”). If you are counting on a certain amount or certain specific assets transferring to the spouse, but have only this formula clause in the Trust document, under the 2010 rules, the entir amount of the decedent's trust estate will be held in the Bypass Trust, no matter how large the estate.
If you are counting on a certain amount or certain specific assets transferring to the spouse, but have only this formula clause in the Trust document, under 2010 rules, the entire amount of decedent’s trust estate will be held in the Bypass Trust, no matter how large the estate.
Charitable Formula Provisions. Some Trusts provide that the exempt amount will pass to children or other heirs and balance to a Charity. When there was an established amount and the estate size was modestly over the exemption amount, that probably worked to satisfy a client’s objectives. As the exemption increases or is eliminated, this may not work any more. In 2010, by defiinition, this clause will transfer the decedent's entire trust estate to the Charity and nothing to other heirs.
In 2010, by definition, this clause will transfer the decedent’s entire trust estate to the Charity, and nothing to other heirs!
Other Lurking Issues. Under the current law, the concept of “stepped up” basis is no longer effective. When a capital asset is transferred by gift during lifetime, the transferee “receives” the transferor’s basis (and eventual capital gain on disposition). Under old rules, when a capital asset was transferred “by reason of death,” the transferor’s basis was adusted so the transferee would have a brand new, fair market value, basis on receipt. The new rule, effective January 1, 2010, treats such assets whether inherited by reason of death or received by lifetime gift, the same. The transferor’s basis now “carries over” to the new owner. There is no longer an adjustment to fair market value. This may well have significant consequences and should be considered in planning.
One item of good news here is that the law retained an election by the executor or trustee to step up some of the assets under the old rule. There are rules and time frames, and an administrator will now have to be diligent about it. The amount which may be elected is substantial ($1.3 million).
It is uncertain where we are going with this and whether Congress will act this year–or not at all. It is certain that if you have not done so, you need to review existing plans and adjust where necessary. Earlier, I alluded to drafting for flexibility. There are “disclaimer” techniques and a technique using something called a Power of Appointment which may be very useful in these uncertain times. Your advisor should know about these techniques.