Strategies to Reduce Gift/Estate Tax Uncertainty
Many of our clients have had their eyes on the election and may be rightly thinking about the need to update their gift and estate planning. There is already an open discussion about a rollback of the 2018 Trump tax cuts in the Biden camp. If Biden’s win is confirmed, and if those sympathetic to Biden’s policy proposals gain control of both houses of Congress, the current generous gift tax of exemption $11.58M, or $23.16M for a married couple, could easily be reduced by 50% or more. Currently, the balance of power will be decided by a run-off election for Georgia’s two senate seats, which won’t be decided until January 5th, potentially too late to make a decisive move.
To counter this uncertainty, consider a strategy that allows you to “freeze” the current generous gift estate exemption: the gift of a promissory note. An individual can promise to make gifts to donees in the future through such a gift. This promise to make the transfer in the future allows the donor/promisor to take advantage of the current $11.58M estate tax exemption, while still having possession and control of the funds or property.
Normally, a promise must be supported by some consideration and show mutual assent by the parties to be enforceable. Nevertheless, for gift tax purposes, a transfer may constitute a gift even if the property is transferred for less than adequate and full consideration in money or money’s worth. 26 U.S. Code §2512. Additionally, a gratuitous transfer of a legally binding promissory note is considered a completed gift even though the donor is solely making a promise to gift property in the future. Rev. Rul. 84-25. These gifts should be timely reported on a Form 709: “United States Gift (and Generation-Skipping Transfer) Tax Return.”
Whether this gift strategy will ultimately reduce the estate tax burden will depend in part on whether the taxpayer dies within 3 years of making the gift. If so, the IRS can successfully “add back” the tax burden to the decedent’s gross estate. Gifts made shortly prior to a person’s death are normally considered “gifts in contemplation of death”; in other words, a gift of property made by a person expecting to die soon. If the gift is considered to be made in contemplation of death, the gift will be included in the value of the decedent’s estate for federal tax purposes, which could result in taxation if the estate tax threshold is lowered significantly.
A potential solution to this issue may be a self-cancelling note. This instrument works similarly to a typical installment note, in that payments are made to a person or a trust periodically over a specified period of years. But, unlike a classic installment note, a self-cancelling note includes one or more provisions for automatic cancellation of the unpaid balance at the death of the seller/donor. Therefore, if the donor dies before the specified period, the property is transferred, and the value is removed from the decedent’s estate. If the donor lives beyond the period over which payments may be made, the “cancel at death” provision(s) are not triggered.
Some states have similar provisions to the federal 3-year-period explained above. One example is the State of New York, where there is no gift tax. Here, New York Tax Law § 954 (a) (3) includes in a New York resident’s taxable estate the amount of any gift made during the three year period before the decedent’s death, but not including any gift made: (a) by a non-resident of New York state; or (b) before April 1st, 2014; or (c) between January 1st, 2019 and January 15th, 2019; or (d) that is real or tangible personal property having an actual situs outside NY state at the time the gift was made. This provision is set to expire on January 1st, 2026, in line with current Federal law.
Another strategy is to make the promissory note payable to an irrevocable trust for the benefit of the donees. In this case, the donor could promise to pay or give property to a trust for the donee’s benefit. The note would then be delivered to and enforceable by the trustee of the trust. Even though the beneficiaries of the trust are the ultimate recipients, they should not be considered to have received an indirect gift to the trust for gift tax purposes. If the note is payable to a trust created by the donor, the trust could be structured as a grantor trust for income tax purposes. 26 CFR §1.671-2 (e) (2). Consequently, neither the donor nor the trust should be taxed on the interest on the note. Rev. Rul. 85-13.
Carefully implemented, this gift tax strategy can allow you to benefit from the current gift tax exemption, without losing control of assets, and may allow you to reduce your estate tax burden significantly. Contact us to see if this simple but effective strategy could be right for you.