Estate Tax is Coming Back. President Obama has signed a compromise agreement on a temporary extension of the Bush income tax cuts for a two year period. Part of the bill includes a return of the estate tax with a $5,000,000 exemption and a 35% rate for two years only. Prior to this new law, there was no estate tax in 2010. In 2009, there was an estate tax with an exemption of $3,500,000 at a maximum rate of 45%. Without this new legislation, then the exemption was on autopilot to be $1,000,000 per person with a maximum rate of 55% on January 1, 2011. The autopilot date has been postponed to January 1, 2013.
Opposition of Compromise. There was opposition in the House and Senate, but a tax compromise of a two year extension was able to pass and be signed by the President. However, the return of estate tax and whether the exemption should be less than $5,000,000 will be an issue in the 2012 elections for President and Congress. Since this is only a two year extension, this means that the estate tax exemption will be $1,000,000 on January 1, 2013 with a 55% rate unless there is another compromise. In order to stop this from happening, there must be 60 votes in the Senate for another compromise. In 2010, there was the pressure of raising taxes in a recession. If the past is an indication, there will not be a compromise next time and the estate tax exemption will revert to $1,000,000 on January 1, 2013.
Tax Increases Are Coming. We have written before that the estate tax would return because of the growing federal deficit. This tax proposal and unemployment extension may add more than $900 billion to the deficit for the next two years according to estimates. Part of the opposition to this two year extension of the Bush tax cuts was due to the large and growing federal deficit. Eventually, Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security and the interest on the debt are on autopilot to consume all federal revenues. There will have to be painful tax hikes in the future unless the costs of these and other programs are reduced more than what is now considered politically acceptable.
$5,000,000 Exemption. The impact on planning between a $5,000,000 per person exemption and a $1,000,000 exemption is very large. With home equity, a life insurance policy and retirement savings over a lifetime, it is common for a family who worked for the government or had a mid level position to have over a $1,000,000 estate. However, over $5,000,000 estates are not common and require that the person had an unusually successful business or had a $300,000 or higher annual salary over a long period of time. The $5,000,000 exemption removes the estate tax as a concern for only a small percentage of Americans. In addition, with the new portability provisions (more on this later), married people will more easily use their combined $10,000,000 exemption.
What to Do Now. If you will have an estate over $5,000,000, or if you are concerned that the $1,000,000 exemption and 55% rate will return January 1, 2013, what should you do now:
1. Make large gifts before the end of the year. Since there is no estate tax or estate tax exemption in 2010, it is a reasonable position to make large gifts in 2010 and not use up any of your future exemption from estate taxes. There is a large dispute over how this will be decided by the courts due to ambiguous language in the statute which provides for the expiration of the Bush tax cuts. Even if there eventually is a ruling that the rules for 2011 should apply to 2010, even thought the tax year and law was different during those two years, you are likely to come out ahead because you made a gift when dollar prices were depressed in 2010. If you give away something worth $800,000 in 2010, it may have a price tag of $5,000,000 in 2020 simply as a result of high inflation rates. Gifts in excess of your $1,000,000 gift tax exemption in 2010 would incur a 35% tax rate on gifts.
2. Make gifts to grandchildren or to trusts for grandchildren. Not only is there no estate tax in 2010, there is no generation skipping tax paid on gifts to grandchildren in 2010, even if to a properly designed trust for a grandchild. With the return of the estate tax in 2011 at a 35% rate, there will be a 35% tax on gifts to grandchildren under the generation skipping transfer tax (GSTT) over the $5,000,000 exemption for 2011 and 2012. The new law clarifies that you can make a gift to a trust for grandchildren in 2010 and pay no GST tax this year or in the future. This is done by reimposing the GST tax in 2010, but with a zero percent rate. You make gift to a trust just for grandchildren, you do not use any exemption from GST tax and therefore it is a taxable transfer in 2010, but since the tax rate is zero, you can make gifts to trust for grandchildren and not use up any of your $5,000,000 GSTT exemption. You only have until the end of 2010 to do this. You will be able to make GSTT gifts up to $5,000,000 in 2011 and 2012.
3. Discounting and GRATs not modified yet. There was concern that the use of discounts for family limited partnerships or through a grantor retained annuity trust would be curbed by the new legislation. They were not. However, when taxes will need to be raised in the future, these restrictions could be reconsidered.
4. Roth Conversion. You can convert your retirement plans to a Roth IRA in 2010. This can be an important tool of estate planning. If your financial projections are that you will not need to use the funds in your regular IRA during your lifetime, then if you convert it to a Roth IRA, you will not be required to take out any distributions during your lifetime and the funds in the Roth IRA will continue to accumulate tax free. If you retain the funds in a regular IRA or retirement fund, you will be required to take minimum distributions calculated to exhaust everything in your retirement account during your lifetime. Instead, if you leave your Roth IRA to your five year old granddaughter with a life expectancy of 105 years, then the granddaughter could take distributions over her remaining 100 year life expectancy and have one of the few accounts that are not subject to any of the high tax rates that are coming in the future. The downside is that you have to come up with separate funds to pay the taxes caused by the Roth conversion now.
Taxes Are Going Up. The debt commission recommends tax increases and drastic cuts so as to balance the budget by 2035. The 2010 tax rates and the two year compromise will probably be the lowest taxes you will see during your lifetime. Eventually, taxes will go up to pay for everything. Our future may look like what is happening is Ireland now where they have to have large broad based tax increases and large cuts in entitlement and spending.
It is Not Too Late. There still is time to take advantage of these end of the year planning opportunities. There are only a few days left to take advantage of the zero percent rate for gifts to grandchildren in trust in 2010.