To quote former President Gerald Ford, with respect to the Federal Estate and Gift Tax: "our long, national nightmare is over." Late on January 1, Congress enacted "The American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012." I won't go into great detail about the act (there is a lot about it we still don't actually know and will have to wait for the analysis of people more capable than I am), but will point out the highlights of the Estate and Gift Tax provisions which are of considerable importance to Estate Planning.
The Act preserves the $5 million per person ($10 million per married couple) "unified" estate and gift tax exemption and indexes it for inflation.
The Act preserves the 2012 levels of a $5 million per person exemption, maintains the "unified"estate and gift structure (meaning the $5 million threshold applied to total transfers, whether by gift during lifetime or inheritance on death), and indexes them for inflation. The Act also makes the concept of "portability," which was added in the 2010 extension for the first time, a permanent part of the tax structure. What "portability" means is that for married couples, the $5 million credit can be allocated or "shared" between them at any time, including after death. This effectively eliminates–in most cases–the need for those "clunky," inconvenient, "AB Trusts" ("his and hers"), and all the allocations and adjustments we were constantly making in those plans. This should have the effect of greatly simplifying the planning process in all but a few instances. The only real, substantive change in the law is a (modest?) increase in the rate (which will only apply after the $5/10 million credit has been used up).
What does "permanent" mean?
Most importantly, the Act makes the current Estate and Gift tax laws permanent. One of my colleagues asked me, what does "permanent" mean? I think that is a fair question. In 2000, the so-called "Bush Tax Cuts" were implemented and because of internal machinations in Congress, were built around a 10-year "sunset." This meant that unless Congress acted during the 10-year period, the laws would automatically expire on December 31, 2010. In a demonstration of the "brinksmanship" for which our modern Congress has become so famous for, in late December of 2010, they "extended" the law for 2 more years.
For the first time in the past 12 years, planners will be able to tell clients what to expect in this area. As we move forward in 2013, I expect that many of our clients will be looking at much simpler estate planning devices. I think that is a plus
But when they extended the general tax laws, they made unanticipated major changes to the Federal Estate and Gift tax. This was in every way a good change. But it was "temporary," because it was part of an extension, again due to expire recently on December 31, 2012. The new law does not have a "sunset" provision. This means that until Congress acts by legislation to change it, it is permanent. That is as "permanent" as any law gets these days.
My personal view, and what I have been able to glean from reading other sources, suggests that Congress has no appetite to make future major changes to this area, for a number of reasons. So, what we now have is some consistency and something on which we should be able to rely for the foreseeable future.
For the first time in the past 12 years, planners will be able to tell clients what to expect in this area. As we move forward in 2013, I expect that many of our clients will be looking at much simpler estate planning devices. I think that is a plus.