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2019 Year-End Estate Planning: The Question Is Not Whether to Gift, But How to Gift


9 minute read

2019 Year-End Estate Planning: The Question Is Not Whether to Gift, But How to Gift

Federal and Illinois tax laws continue to provide opportunities to transfer significant amounts of wealth free of any federal gift, estate and generation-skipping transfer (GST) taxes. However, because certain beneficial provisions "sunset" on January 1, 2026, now is an ideal time to revisit estate plans to ensure you make full use of this opportunity.

Current Exemption Levels

The federal gift, estate and GST exemptions (i.e., the amount an individual can transfer free of any of these taxes) are currently $11,400,000 for each individual, increasing to $11,580,000 in 2020. For married couples, the exemptions are currently $22,800,000, increasing to $23,160,000 in 2020. However, on January 1, 2026, the federal gift, estate and GST exemptions will be cut in half.

Federal and Illinois estate tax laws allow for a marital deduction for assets passing outright to a spouse or to qualifying trusts for the benefit of a surviving spouse. Thereafter, the federal estate tax rate is 40 percent. Illinois imposes a state estate tax based on a $4,000,000 threshold, which is not adjusted for inflation, at effective rates ranging from 8 percent to approximately 29 percent. (The Illinois estate tax paid is allowable as a deduction for federal estate tax purposes.) The only way to take advantage of the increased federal exemptions is to utilize planning strategies such as gifting in advance of the sunset date.

Gifting Options

Lifetime utilization of transfer tax exemption. A simple and effective planning opportunity involves early and full use of the high exemptions. Lifetime gifts utilizing the exemption amounts will almost always result in overall transfer tax savings, unless the assets that have been transferred decline in value. As with any gifting strategy, all income and future appreciation attributable to the gifted assets escapes future gift and estate taxation.

Assuming that assets appreciate, the sooner a planning strategy is implemented, the greater the estate tax savings will be. On November 22, 2019, the IRS issued final "anti-clawback" regulations expressly acknowledging that, when the exemptions are decreased, gifts made using the current high exemption amounts and which are in excess of the future reduced exemption amounts will not be subject to any additional gift or estate taxation. Thus, now is clearly the time for a "use it or lose it" strategy.

Annual exclusion gifts. Making use of annual exclusion gifts remains one of the most powerful estate planning techniques. The "annual exclusion amount" is the amount that any individual may give to any other individual within a tax year without incurring gift tax consequences. This amount, indexed for inflation, is currently $15,000 per donee.

Married couples can combine their annual exclusion amounts when making gifts, meaning that a married couple can give $30,000 per year to a child without using any transfer tax exemption (although filing a gift tax return may be required in some circumstances). When the spouses of children are included in the annual exclusion gifting, the amount that can be gifted is doubled again, meaning that a married couple can give a total of $60,000 per year to a child and the child's spouse without using any transfer tax exemption.

Annual exclusion gifts can result in substantial transfer tax savings over time, as they allow the donor to remove the gift amount and any income and growth thereon from the donor's estate without paying any gift tax or using any transfer tax exemption. Annual exclusion gifts also reduce a family's overall income tax burden when income-producing property is transferred to family members who are in lower income tax brackets and not subject to the "kiddie tax" or the 3.8 percent net investment income tax.

Tuition and medical gifts. Individuals can make unlimited gifts on behalf of others by paying tuition costs directly to the recipient's school or paying their medical expenses (including the payment of health insurance premiums) directly to a health care provider.

Gifts to spousal lifetime access trusts. Most people consider $11,400,000 to be a very large gift and either cannot, or do not want to, give away that much, as they may need or want it for themselves. A gift to a properly structured "spousal lifetime access trust" lets an individual make a completed gift now, and use the temporarily increased transfer exemption, but allows the individual's spouse to be a beneficiary of the trust and have access to trust assets if needed. If the spousal lifetime access trust is implemented properly, the assets of trust (and the growth thereon) will not be subject to estate tax at the death of the grantor or at the death of the grantor's spouse.

Grantor trusts. When planning with trusts, donors have great flexibility in determining who will be responsible for the payment of income taxes attributable to the assets in a trust. As an enhanced planning technique, trusts can be structured as "grantor trusts," in which the trust is a disregarded income tax entity and the donor—not the trust or the beneficiaries—is responsible for paying tax on the trust's income. By structuring a trust as a grantor trust, a donor can make tax-free gifts when paying the tax attributable to the trust's income. This technique promotes appreciation of the trust assets while simultaneously decreasing the size of the donor's estate, producing additional estate tax savings.

Combining gifting and selling assets to grantor trusts. Additional estate tax benefits can be obtained by combining gifts to grantor trusts with sales to grantor trusts. Because the grantor is treated as the owner of the trust for income tax purposes, no capital gains tax is imposed on the sale of assets to a grantor trust. The trust can finance the sale with a promissory note payable to the grantor, which provides the grantor with cash flow from the trust. The growth on the assets that are sold would then escape estate taxation at the grantor's death.

Considerations When Making a Gift

Use of trusts when gifting. As with any gifting strategy, assets may be gifted outright so that the recipient directly controls the assets, thereby exposing the assets to the claims of the beneficiary's creditors. Alternatively, assets may be gifted in trust, which 1) protects the gifted assets from the beneficiary's creditors, including the spouses of beneficiaries in the event of divorce, 2) determines the future use and control of the gifted assets, and 3) shelters the gifted assets from future gift, estate and GST taxes through the allocation of the GST exemption.

Valuation discounts and leveraging strategies in the family context. "Minority interest," "lack of marketability," "lack of control" and "fractional interest" discounts can still be applied under current law to the valuation of interests in family-controlled entities and of real estate and other assets that are transferred to family members. Such discounting provides for estate and gift tax savings by reducing the value of the transferred interests. Leveraging strategies (e.g., family partnerships, sales to grantor trusts and grantor retained annuity trusts) can also be utilized to advantageously pass tremendous amounts of wealth for the benefit of many generations free of federal and Illinois transfer taxes.

State of Illinois estate tax laws. Illinois continues to tax estates in excess of $4,000,000, which is not adjusted for inflation and not allowed to be "ported" to a surviving spouse. Given the disparity between the $11,400,000 federal estate tax exemption and the $4,000,000 Illinois estate tax exemption, married couples domiciled in Illinois should make certain that their estate plans are structured to take advantage of the Illinois estate tax marital deduction. Otherwise, an estate plan that is designed to fully utilize the federal exemption can inadvertently cause an Illinois estate tax in excess of $1,000,000 upon the death of the first spouse.

The obvious and most direct strategy to address the Illinois estate tax is to simply move to one of the many states that do not currently impose an estate tax. In the event that a change of domicile is not possible or is not desired, all of the traditional planning techniques described above (in addition to others) are available to address this state liability. Because Illinois does not impose a gift tax, enacting gifting strategies will reduce future Illinois estate taxes.

Income tax basis changes. We continue to enjoy an income tax basis adjustment for assets received from a decedent upon his or her death (commonly known as the "step-up in basis," although if values go down it can also be a "step-down" in basis). With the increase in the federal gift, estate and GST exemptions, and even with Illinois' $4,000,000 exemption, transfer taxes are no longer a concern in many circumstances, and there is increased emphasis on income tax planning (specifically, planning with the goal of obtaining an income tax basis step-up at death). For many clients, it may be advisable, if possible, to "reverse" prior estate planning techniques, including trusts that were established on the death of a first spouse to die, to allow for a step-up in basis.

Traditional Estate Planning Still Matters

There is no time like the present to make certain that estate planning documents accurately reflect current wishes and make beneficial use of the federal and state transfer tax exemptions (to the extent not utilized during lifetime), federal and/or state marital deductions, and federal GST exemptions. Revisions may also be needed if family circumstances have changed since documents were originally executed.

Your estate planning goals may have changed. Many people no longer have taxable estates for federal estate tax purposes and may be able to adjust their estate plans accordingly, while others have existing plans that automatically adjust to the increased exemptions and do not desire more aggressive planning. Still others may want to take prompt action to aggressively utilize the new exemptions.

The above summary is not intended to enumerate all available estate planning techniques. Non-tax reasons to review and implement estate plans include:

  • Planning for probate avoidance
  • Planning for individuals with special needs (or who otherwise require specialized planning)
  • Implementing advance health care directives (such as living wills and health care powers of attorney)
  • Planning for incapacity
  • Planning for business succession
  • Planning for minor children and designating guardians
  • Planning for charitable giving

New Trust Code for 2020

On January 1, 2020, a new Illinois Trust Code will become effective, making many significant changes with regard to the administration of trusts. Of note:

Notice and designated representatives. Under the new law, for trusts that become irrevocable on or after January 1, 2020 (for example, a revocable trust becomes irrevocable upon a settlor's death), the trustee is required to provide a copy of the trust agreement to all current and presumptive remainder beneficiaries. However, you can name a designated representative to receive such notice on behalf of any current and remainder beneficiaries.

Accountings. Under current law, a trust can be drafted so that accountings only need to be provided annually to current beneficiaries, not presumptive remainder beneficiaries. Under the new Illinois Trust Code, for trusts that become irrevocable on or after January 1, 2020, a trustee will have to provide annual accountings to current and presumptive remainder beneficiaries.

However, a trust agreement can be drafted to forego the requirement of providing the annual accountings to the remainder beneficiaries or potentially to provide that the accountings be provided to a designated representative for a remainder beneficiary rather than the remainder beneficiary himself or herself (although the remainder beneficiaries will be entitled to accountings when the current beneficiary's interest terminates). This could mean, for example, that children who are remainder beneficiaries of a marital trust created under their father's estate plan for their mother's benefit will receive an annual accounting during their mother's life unless they waive their right to receive it or the trust provides otherwise.

An upcoming Much article specifically addressing the Illinois Trust Code will be published and sent in the near future.

The Secure Act

Finally, pending in Congress is a bill known as the Secure Act. This legislation, if enacted in its current form, would push back the age of required minimum distributions from 70½ to 72 and eliminate the "stretch IRA." If the Secure Act becomes law, we will send a supplement to this bulletin.

For More Information

Contact your Much attorney or a member of our Estate Planning & Wealth Transfer group to evaluate your circumstances and determine appropriate strategies that fulfill your objectives.