Year-End Giving To Reduce Your Potential Estate Tax

For many, sound estate planning begins with lifetime gifts to family members. In other words, gifts that reduce the donor's assets subject to future estate tax. Such gifts are often made at year-end, during the holiday season, in ways that qualify for exemption from federal gift tax.

Gifts to a donee are exempt from the gift tax for amounts up to $13,000 a year per donee.

Caution: An unused annual exemption doesn't carry over to later years. To make use of the exemption for 2011, you must make your gift by December 31.

Husband-wife joint gifts to any third person are exempt from gift tax for amounts up to $26,000 ($13,000 each). Though what's given may come from either you or your spouse or from both of you, both of you must consent to such "split gifts".

Gifts of "future interests", assets that the donee can only enjoy at some future time such as certain gifts in trust, generally don't qualify for exemption; however, gifts for the benefit of a minor child can be made to qualify.

Tip: If you're considering adopting a plan of lifetime giving to reduce future estate tax don't hesitate to call us. We can help you set it up.

Cash or publicly traded securities raise the fewest problems. You may choose to give property you expect to increase substantially in value later. Shifting future appreciation to your heirs keeps that value out of your estate. But this can trigger IRS questions about the gift's true value when given.

You may choose to give property that has already appreciated. The idea here is that the donee, not you, will realize and pay income tax on future earnings, and built-in gain on sale.

Gift tax returns for 2011 are due the same date as your income tax return. Returns are required for gifts over $13,000 (including husband-wife split gifts totaling more than $13,000) and gifts of future interests. Though you are not required to file if your gifts do not exceed $13,000, you might consider filing anyway as a tactical move to block a future IRS challenge about gifts not "adequately disclosed".

Tip: Call us if you're considering making a gift of property whose value isn't unquestionably less than $13,000.

Income earned on investments you give to children or other family members is generally taxed to them, not to you. In the case of dividends paid on stock given to your children, they may qualify for the reduced 5% dividend rate.

Caution: In 2011, investment income for a child (under age 18 at the end of the tax year or a full-time student under age 24) that is in excess of $1,900 is taxed at the parent's tax rate.

Other Year-End Moves

Retirement Plan Contributions. Maximize your retirement plan contributions. If you own an incorporated or unincorporated business, consider setting up a retirement plan if you don't already have one. (It doesn't need to actually be funded until you pay your taxes, but allowable contributions will be deductible on this year's return.)

If you are an employee and your employer has a 401(k), contribute the maximum amount ($16,500 for 2011 and $17,000 for 2012, plus an additional catch up contribution of $5,500 if age 50 or over, assuming the plan allows this much and income restrictions don't apply).

If you are employed or self-employed with no retirement plan, you can make a deductible contribution of up to $5,000 a year to a traditional IRA (deduction is sometimes allowed even if you have a plan). Further, there is also an additional catch up contribution of $1,000 if age 50 or over.

Health Savings Accounts. Consider setting up a health savings account (HSA). You can deduct contributions to the account, investment earnings are tax-deferred until withdrawn, and amounts you withdraw are tax-free when used to pay medical bills.

In effect, medical expenses paid from the account are deductible from the first dollar (unlike the usual rule limiting such deductions to the excess over 7.5% of AGI). For amounts withdrawn at age 65 or later, and not used for medical bills, the HSA functions much like an IRA.

To be eligible, you must have a high-deductible health plan (HDHP), and only such insurance, subject to numerous exceptions, and must not be enrolled in Medicare. For 2011, to qualify for the HSA, your minimum deductible in your HDHP must be at least $1,200 (single coverage) or $2,400 (family). It remains unchanged for 2012.