The exclusion amounts currently available for the federal gift and estate tax and generation-skipping transfer tax, sometimes individually or collectively referred to as transfer tax(es),[1] may prove to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to pass significant wealth to children, grandchildren, and more distant generations in a tax-efficient manner.

Individuals and families wishing to capitalize on this tax-saving opportunity may have to act fast since the currently expanded exclusion amount is set to expire at the end of 2025. Moreover, the exclusion amount may change even earlier if political winds shift and new legislation is enacted before then.

As discussed below, we recommend that individuals and families for whom intra-family gifting is part of their wealth planning strategy:

  • consider making meaningful transfers of wealth now, before the exclusion amount changes;
  • confirm that other planning objectives are met before undertaking further gifting; and
  • where appropriate, incorporate flexibility into wealth transfer plans to address possible changes in legislation or changes to personal and financial circumstances.

We suggest that you discuss these recommendations with your legal and tax advisors.

The Current Opportunity

The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 (TCJA)[2] created a significant opportunity to tax-efficiently transfer wealth to the next generation and beyond, effectively doubling the gift and estate tax exclusion and the generation-skipping transfer tax exclusion from the limits in effect in 2017. The amount of wealth an individual can transfer during one’s lifetime or at death without the imposition of transfer tax increased from $5.49 million in 2017 to $11.18 million in 2018 ($22.36 million for a married couple). In 2020, the exclusion amount as indexed for inflation is $11.58 million per person ($23.16 million for a married couple) and is subject to further adjustment for inflation through 2025. For individuals and families willing and able to make significant gifts, this represents an unprecedented opportunity to transfer assets to younger generations at a much-reduced transfer tax cost.

This increased gifting capacity is not permanent. Assuming no changes, the current exclusion amount (as further adjusted for inflation) is set to expire on December 31, 2025. Beginning January 1, 2026, the exclusion amount will be decreased to approximately $6.4 million per person.[3]

Additionally, depending on the outcome of presidential and congressional elections between now and then, it is possible the exemption amount could change even sooner.

Because 2020 is a presidential and congressional election year, the outcome of the November 2020 election could have a significant impact on the ability to make gifts in the future, as could federal elections in 2022 and 2024.

To Gift or Not to Gift?

For individuals and families who wish to pass assets to children, grandchildren, and (perhaps) more distant descendants as part of their overall wealth transfer plan, gifting now, rather than later, could provide significant benefits to the family. Yet lifetime gifting is a balancing act, where the benefits of making gifts today should outweigh the potential disadvantages. 

Potential benefits of gifting now include:  Potential disadvantages of gifting now include: 
the post-gift appreciation on the gifted assets escapes transfer taxation upon the donor’s death;[4] the donor’s loss of control over the transferred assets; 
the donor can use the gift event as a way to pass on experience and wisdom to increase the recipient’s financial acumen and experience; and the donor’s loss of access to the gifted asset and its income; and
the recipient can benefit from the gift now rather than in the future when the donor dies.  loss of the date of death tax-cost basis adjustment to fair market value that would otherwise be available upon the donor’s death.[5]

Determining whether to make substantial gifts to future generations is a complex decision and is dependent on a number of factors.

For many, thoughtful planning can capture many of the advantages of lifetime gifting while minimizing the impact of potential disadvantages, such as the few pros and cons of gifting that are highlighted in the graphic above. A discussion with your tax, legal, and financial advisors can help you decide what is right for you and your family. 

Considerations in Light of Impending Expiration

Assuming the benefits of gifting now outweigh the potential drawbacks, and an individual or family is in a position to make significant gifts, the taxpayer should keep the following in mind when determining how much (and how) to gift before this window of opportunity closes.

Go Big, or Don’t Bother

Having decided to take advantage of the expanded exclusion amount, determine whether the value of the gifts is substantial enough to make best use of this unique opportunity. Because prior use of the exclusion amount reduces a taxpayer’s exclusion amount available to offset future gifts, gifting less than $6.4 million does not maximize the current gifting opportunity, see the table below.

  Gift $5 Million* Gift $10 Million*
Current Gifting Capacity (2020) $11.58 $11.58
Gifts in 2020  $5.00 $10.00
Remaining Exclusion Amount  $6.58 $1.58
Exclusion Amount (2026) $6.40 $6.40
Less: Prior Gifts (2020)  $5.00 $10.00
Remaining Exclusion Amount (2026) $1.40 $0.00**
Total Possible Gifts Without Tax $6.40 $10.00

* All dollar values are in millions.
** The exclusion amount will not go below zero, provided the exclusion amount exceeds the gift value at the time of gifting.

It is important to note that if the exclusion amount is reduced in the future, making gifts now will not increase the donor’s future taxable estate. This is because the Internal Revenue Service issued regulations in 2019 that eliminate the risk of an increased taxable estate resulting solely from a decrease in the exclusion amount.[6]

Keep All Planning Goals in Mind

While gifting now can create transfer tax savings for a taxpayer’s family, take care that these benefits don’t come at the expense of meeting other financial goals, both now and in the future. For example, making large gifts to family members now may impair the donor’s ability to maintain a desired lifestyle or contribute to charity. Likewise, confirm that recipient children and future generations are prepared to handle financial assets before making large gifts.

Using trusts to make significant gifts can help prevent recipients from getting too much, too fast. Trusts can also be designed to provide asset protection that may not be available for outright gifts.

Additionally, trusts can serve as a teaching tool to help prepare current and future beneficiaries to successfully manage wealth.

Maintain flexibility. Because the rules can change at any time, maintaining flexibility with regard to gifting is important. Married couples who wish to preserve as much future gifting capacity as possible may want to consider not electing to split gifts and to use the gifting capacity of just one spouse. While this would preclude the donor from making additional gifts after expiration of the increased exclusion amount, the total gifting capacity for the couple is increased because the exclusion amount for the nondonor spouse is preserved for future use, see the table below.

With Split Gifts ($11 million)

  Individual* Spouse*
Current Gifting Capacity (2020) $11.58 $11.58
Gifts in 2020 ($11 million total gift) $5.50 $5.50
Remaining Exclusion Amount $6.08 $6.08
Exclusion Amount (2026) $6.40 $6.40
Less: Prior Gifts (2020)  $5.50 $5.50
Remaining Exclusion Amount (2026)  $0.90 $0.90
Total Possible Sheltered Gifts  $12.80

Without Split Gifts ($11 million)

  Individual* Spouse*
Current Gifting Capacity (2020) $11.58 $11.58
Gifts in 2020 ($11 million total gift) $11.00 $0.00
Remaining Exclusion Amount $0.58 $11.58
Exclusion Amount (2026) $6.40 $6.40
Less: Prior Gifts (2020)  $11.00 $0.00
Remaining Exclusion Amount (2026)  $0.00** $6.40
Total Possible Sheltered Gifts  $17.40

* All dollar values are in millions.
** The exclusion amount will not go below zero, provided the exclusion amount exceeds the gift value at the time of gifting.

Another option that may provide flexibility is the use of trusts that can benefit the donor’s spouse (as opposed to a trust that only benefits the donor’s lineal descendants), sometimes referred to as a spousal lifetime access trust. This giving strategy may provide some access to the gifted funds to the spouse (and through the spouse, the donor and the family) should the need arise. Unfortunately, this strategy and the one discussed above are only available to married couples. There are few strategies that provide significant flexibility for unmarried individuals when making large current gifts.

What to Gift

In addition to deciding how much to gift and when, determining the optimal assets to gift can increase the tax benefit to the family. Transferring the following types of assets may provide some further advantages when it comes to gifting.

Assets Expected to Appreciate in the Near Term

One of the benefits of gifting during one’s lifetime is the ability to remove future appreciation from the taxpayer’s taxable estate at death. Gifting assets that are expected to appreciate in the near term may provide an advantage over assets that are expected to appreciate more slowly.

Assets Subject to Valuation Discounts

Gifting assets that are subject to valuation discounts for lack of marketability or lack of control can help magnify the total value that can be transferred without additional transfer tax. For example, if an asset that would otherwise be valued at $10 million is subject to a valuation discount of 20%, this asset would be valued at $8 million for gift tax purposes. To put it another way, transferring assets subject to a 20% valuation discount can allow a taxpayer to transfer assets worth $12.5 million at a gift tax value of $10 million.[7]

Family Business Interests

The specter of gift taxes can be a significant deterrent to transferring a business to the next generation. Likewise, selling the business to the next generation may require earmarking future business cash flows to pay the sales price, potentially hampering the ability to preserve and grow the business. If a family transition is desired and the business is to continue, it may make sense to consider gifting some or all of the ownership interests in the family business. This transfer may also be eligible for valuation discounts. This can help to leverage the value of assets transferred to the next generation while preserving capital within the business.

Act Before the Window of Opportunity Closes

Gifting requires careful consideration and is not something to undertake lightly, but the benefits of lifetime gifting can be great.

If lifetime gifting fits into your wealth transfer plan, consider taking advantage of the current expanded gift and estate tax and generation-skipping transfer tax exclusion amounts before they expire or are otherwise reduced.

Contact your financial, legal, and tax advisors to see which gifting strategies can best help you reach your financial goals.

For more information, please contact your PNC advisor.