Nov 21, 2012
Unfortunately, before we can intelligently answer this question, some history is necessary. With the pending expiration of the so-called "Bush Era Tax Cuts," there is a significant amount of buzz about making large year end gifts to take advantage of the current high gift threshold. Historically, the current Federal Estate and Gift Law scheme dates back to the early 1980's when the "unified estate and gift tax exemption" and the "unlimited marital deduction" were created. A 1986 threshold of $600,000 was set as the amount exempt from federal estate and gift tax transferred by each person. This effectively meant with some careful planning, a married couple could pass $1.2 million to their heirs by lifetime gift or at death before a federal transfer tax was imposed. The amount was capped in 1986 at the $600,000 level. Many of us watched as inflation and growth took our parents' modest estates (often substantially below $600,000) and turned them millions. As we watched, many of us also felt strongly that the $600,000 threshold was no longer a reasonable measure of "modest" wealth and that Congress' failure to address an inflation factor in this threshold was a serious policy flaw.
In 2000, a "conservative" Congress enacted the "Bush Era" tax laws. In the context of the Federal Estate and Gift Tax, those laws made some major changes, but had some perplexing provisions. Inexplicably, they de-unified (if that is a word) the exemptions. They increased the $600,000 Estate Tax Exemption, incrementally over a series of years, to $3.5 million in 2009, and entirely eliminated the Federal Estate Tax (sometimes called the "death tax") in 2010. At the same time they increased the Federal Gift Exemption to $1 million and froze it there. Their plan was that in 2010 and later, there would be no transfer tax on death, the untaxed lifetime gifts would continue to be limited (to $1 million per person). I have never heard a sensible explanation for this "policy." There were some other "nightmarish" provisions in the new law, including a change to "carryover basis" for inherited capital assets.
The problem with their plan was that due to some internal rules, the conservative majority in Congress did not have the numbers to make the changes permanent. So this tax law had a 10-year lifetime, which was due to expire on December 31, 2010. Rather than deal with it, Congress (mostly) "punted" and extended this expiration deadline to December 31, 2012 – right around the proverbial corner!
However, they did some surprising and unexpected things regarding the Estate and Gift tax laws. It gave me some hope that perhaps there would be an end to the seemingly endless uncertainty involve in Estate and Gift Tax planning over the past decade. In late December, 2010, Congress re-instated the Federal Estate Tax (remember, it expired under the short-lived law in 2010), but increased the threshold to $5 million! They also re-unified the credit, increasing the Gift Tax Exemption, also, to $5 million. Then they indexed both of these exemptions for inflation (in 2012, they are slightly over $5 million). But wait – there's more. They also created a new (and long awaited) allocation rule called "portability" (portability means that we no longer had to have separate trusts in most instances for Husband and Wife).
But Alas, all of this is scheduled to end at midnight on December 31. And the aftermath will be all the way back to a $1 million per person unified exemption.
Now, to the question proposed in the title: Should you make large gifts? I like to think of what we have now as a window. At the moment, it is open wide and at its widest opening, there is room to fit $5 million of assets through it ($10 million for married couples). If nothing changes, Congress will close the window most of the way, leaving it open just enough to fit $1 million of assets through it. So, as I view it, there is little to be gained by making gifts of $1 million or less. We will always be able to get that much through the window. Where the gain comes is if we can put more than $1 million through the window, because once it's closed down, we will have forever gotten the excess amount through the window.
When planning year end strategies, we cannot make this analysis in a vacuum. There is always an argument for making gifts of appreciating assets, up to and even above the $1 million discussed above. We move not only the asset itself, but the future growth out of the estate. But we also have to be cognizant of the nature of the asset being moved and whether we can truly afford not to own it anymore. And, perhaps equally importantly, we need to ask whether we want to continue to own it. It has always seemed bad planning policy to me to let tax considerations override the desires of the client.