Asset Declines are an Estate Planning Opportunity

Last update on: Jun 17 2020

There is at least one silver lining in today’s dark cloud – Estate Planning opportunities are being created. Today we have a rare opportunity to transfer wealth to younger generations while incurring very low gift and estate taxes. Falling market prices and low interest rates are a great combination for estate planners. If the price depression of the assets is temporary, there is the potential to transfer significant future wealth at a substantial tax discount.

You probably have been postponing estate planning, because of uncertainty about the law and the value of assets. In 2009, the estate tax law probably will be made permanent. The President-elect essentially favors making the 2009 law permanent: A lifetime estate tax exemption of $3.5 million and a top tax rate of 45%. Some details might change, but the final law should be close to that.

Another advantage is that the annual gift tax exemption is indexed for inflation and will rise to $13,000 as of Jan. 1, 2009. (For 2008 it is $12,000.) Each person can give up to $13,000 free of gift taxes to any person in 2009. The tax-free gifts can be made to as many people as you want. A married couple can give $26,000 jointly. In addition, the first $1 million of lifetime gifts above those sheltered by the annual exclusion are exempt from gift taxes. To the extent the $1 million gift tax exclusion is used, the estate tax exclusion is reduced.

Today’s relatively low prices highlight a reason to give assets now instead of later through the estate.

Estate and gift taxes are imposed on the value of property. If a mutual fund has declined in value, you can give more shares tax free than you could have before the decline. For example, Dodge & Cox Stock was valued at $132.63 on Feb. 1, 2008. You could have given 90.47727 shares of the fund to someone tax free using the $12,000 annual exclusion. At the Nov. 10 price of $75.39 you could give 159.1723 shares. After the financial crisis and economic decline end, the share prices will recover. The future appreciation above the $75.39 price would be out of your estate and into the hands of your heirs with no estate or gift taxes.

The same reasoning applies to real estate, small business interests, and other assets that have declined in value over the last year or two. If the steep declines of the last year are temporary, this is a rare opportunity to shift assets out of your estate at a fraction of their real or long-term value.

Before giving an asset, however, determine your tax basis in it. Under gift tax law, your heirs will take a tax basis equal to the lower of your basis and the market value at the time of the gift. If the asset has declined below your basis, it makes sense for you to sell it, deduct the loss on your tax return, and give the cash proceeds from the sale. Or if you are concerned that the heirs will spend cash, buy an investment that is not substantially identical to the one you sold and give that new asset. That generates two tax benefits. You deduct the current loss against your income, and all future appreciation is out of your estate.

The best assets to give are those in which you do not have a paper loss but that are likely to appreciate significantly once the financial and economic situation improves. By giving such assets you are likely to transfer the maximum amount of wealth to future generations at the lowest tax cost.

Because of the potential to shift a significant amount of future appreciation to your loved ones at today’s relatively low values, it makes sense to begin using the lifetime $1 million gift tax exemption now. If you do not need the assets to maintain your standard of living and know you eventually will leave them to your children or other heirs, consider making the gifts now. You will be able to transfer far more assets tax free at today’s values than you could have in the recent past and than you will be able to after appreciation resumes. Your heirs will end up with far more wealth, because the taxes on your estate will be much lower than if you retained the assets and let them be taxed as part of your estate.

Those are the basics for taking advantage of today’s economic distress. There are some ways to leverage the circumstances to increase the benefits of giving.

Family loans. Many families like the concept of loans to family members. If you might need the money in the future, the loan lets you provide benefits to family members now while retaining future access to the wealth. The IRS requires you to charge a minimum interest rate on a family loan to avoid income and gift taxes. The minimum rates are based on treasury debt rates. Because the Federal Reserve has been pushing down short-term rates and investors have been reducing intermediate and long-term rates in the flight to safety, the required minimum rates are low. The rates are changed monthly, and recently they ranged from 2.5% to 6.5%, depending on the loan’s maturity or term.

Family loans are very flexible, but here is how it could work. You lend $100,000 to a child for five years. Let’s say the law requires you to charge 3% interest. Your child can invest that money for five years. If the investments earn more than 3% annually, the child keeps that excess return. You receive the $100,000 plus 3% annual interest after five years.

Alternatively, you could lend the money to allow a child to buy a home in today’s depressed market. You might set the term of the loan at 10 years. There are several actions the child could take by the end of 10 years. The home could be sold at a profit, with the child keeping the return above the interest rate you must charge. Or once the credit markets loosen, the child could refinance the home with a traditional mortgage and return the borrowed money plus interest to you.

The benefits of the family loan can be increased with a variation. If you do not need the money to maintain your standard of living, each year you can use the annual gift tax exclusion to forgive part of the principal. This shifts the money and future appreciation out of your estate tax free over time while enabling your children to benefit from having the cash now.

In some circumstances a minimum interest rate need not be charged on a family loan if the principal is low enough. We discussed the safe harbor limits in the September 2007 issue, and that discussion is available in the Grandkids’ Watch section of web site Archive.

Grantor retained annuity trusts. Today’s low interest rates make these trusts a potentially great opportunity.

The grantor creates a trust that pays a fixed income to him for life or a period of years. After that the remainder of the trust goes to the bene-ficiaries. The present value of the remainder is a gift. The present value is determined by IRS tables, and current interest rates are a factor in determining the amount of the gift. The lower the interest rates, the smaller the value of the gift. If the return on the asset exceeds the IRS interest rate, the excess becomes a tax-free gift to the heirs.

A GRAT should be created with assets that are expected to appreciate rapidly within a few years. Studies show value is maximized by creating a GRAT to last two years. After it expires, consider creating a new trust with different assets.

Charitable trusts. If you are inclined to make significant charitable gifts, consider making them now through a charitable trust. In particular charitable lead annuity trusts are most advantageous when rates are low.

The CLAT pays income to a charity for a period of years. The payments are either a percentage of the trust value or a fixed amount. After the income period expires, the remainder in the trust goes to the other beneficiaries, usually the children of the trust creator.

The present value of the remainder for the children is a taxable gift when the trust is created. Again, because of today’s low interest rates the taxable gift will be less than at other times. In addition, the combination of low interest rates and low asset values create the potential that the appreciation of trust assets will significantly exceed the income paid to the charity and the amount on which gift taxes were paid. The result could mean a significant amount of wealth is transferred tax free to heirs.

The creator of a CLAT can take a tax deduction for the present value of the gift to the charity. Doing so, however, obligates him to pay taxes on the income and gains of the trust. Foregoing the deduction avoids the taxes on the income and gains. The CLAT is irrevocable. Once created, you cannot get the money back or change the terms of the trust.

Today’s low interest rates and decline in asset values present estate planning opportunities. Some of these are straightforward and easy to implement. Others, such as trusts and family loans, should be done only with the help of a tax or estate planning expert. Once the current crises end, the benefits from making the moves now will be significant.

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