Donald Trump’s surprise election gives us a tremendous amount of hope that the federal estate tax might finally be repealed. This concept runs in the face of candidate Clinton’s proposal to reduce the estate and gift tax exemption amounts and increase the tax rates from 40% to 65%.
While we do not want to celebrate too early, a critical message is that estate planning should continue with fervor! The Donald Trump phenomenon, which results in a Republican Presidency and a Republican Congress, gives us a great deal of confidence that tax reform will be among the items addressed early in Trump’s administration. Tax reform could and should include the repeal of the federal estate and gift taxes, and the elimination of the generation skipping transfer tax that has been hanging over our heads since 1976.
However, this will take some time, and the reality is that the U.S. still has huge deficits that must be serviced with tax revenue. Granted, the percentage of the federal revenue coming from death taxes is minimal, but there is also the argument that the tax on the transfer of wealth is “fair” in a system that allowed the accumulation of such wealth. This theory is combined with the tempering affect that the death tax has on the growth of family dynasty wealth (taking from the rich to provide for the poor).
It is likely that the current federal estate and gift tax laws will be replaced by a system more popular in other parts of the world, such as the capital gains calculation that takes place in Canada, Great Britain and other western civilizations. In those countries, at death, the difference between the tax basis of property and its fair market value will be subject to a tax similar to the capital gains tax that would have occurred had the decedent sold the appreciated assets. This accomplishes the practical role of allowing tax basis to be stepped up to fair market value at the death of an owner, and replaces the estate and gift tax revenue with a fair method of taxing growth as it is done in the income tax arena. Of course, there will have to be exemptions and exceptions made for family farms and businesses so these types of assets would not have to be leveraged or sold in order to pay Uncle Sam. All of these details, and many more, will have to be worked out by Congress and the U.S. Treasury Department (IRS).
In the meantime, it appears that some of the more popular techniques that we have been implementing over the last 20 or so years will become even more popular. The use of trusts has long been an important aspect of estate planning. Trusts can own property outside of a taxable estate, trusts can allow an orderly transition of control through the naming and choice of trustees, trusts can protect property from creditors and divorce, trusts avoid probate, and trusts provide significant income tax savings flexibility for current and future beneficiaries.
An important trust that we use in estate planning is the Family Trust, where parents set up trusts for their kids while they are alive, as opposed to waiting until both parents are deceased, and begin funding those trusts with assets by way of gift and otherwise, to remove property from the parents’ taxable estates.
One type of Family Trust that we often use is to make the trust a grantor trust for federal income tax purposes. That means for income tax purposes the IRS ignores the existence of the trust and all the taxable income and deductions associated with the Family Trust continue to be reported on the grantor’s individual income tax return. In our practice, we refer to these Family Trusts as “Defective Grantor Trusts”, or DGTs.
One of the features that allows a trust to be a grantor trust during the grantor’s lifetime is the ability to substitute property in the trust with other property from the grantor. This has been a popular benefit of using DGTs because the trust can hold appreciating assets, removing the appreciation from the grantor’s estate, but those appreciated assets can be swapped for cash or other assets, allowing the low-basis, highly-appreciated assets to come back into the grantor’s estate before death, in order to allow a step-up in tax basis at death for income tax purposes. This has always been kind of “have your cake and eat it too”, removing appreciating assets out of your estate, but retaining the ability to get those assets back in order to achieve an increase in tax basis at death. So, one of the things that we have tried to accomplish with our estate planning clients is to assist them in monitoring the assets in their Family Trusts, to determine if and when it would be desirable to substitute those highly appreciated assets for other assets out of our clients’ taxable estates. Of course, timing is everything, and there is always the risk that the substitution might not occur timely, but at least our clients have retained that flexibility.
Now, with the chance of repeal of our federal estate tax, the strategy with these same grantor trusts might change. In other words, since only appreciated assets would be subject to a capital gains tax at death, it may become more important than ever to remove these appreciated assets from the estate, put them in a grantor trust, and leave liquid, high basis assets in the parents’ taxable estates. Then, if the next President and/or Congress were to reinstate a federal estate tax, we can easily shift strategy and look to exercise the substitution power that exists with the DGTs.
Remember that we still have the evil overhang of the proposed 2704 regulations (see prior articles) which will eliminate much of the discounting that we have enjoyed for valuation purposes when gifting or selling hard to value assets to Family Trusts. These proposed rules will become effective, according to the IRS, 30 days after they become final. While we don’t know when these proposed regs will become final, it does take typically 12 to 18 months for these regulation projects to become completed. The regs were proposed in early August, so we are still “under the gun” for those clients who have situations that warrant this type of estate planning.
So, let’s be happy with the potential repeal of the estate tax but be realistic in what that means. If anything, as new rules evolve, we should be focusing on flexible estate planning now, more than ever, as future tax reform will create new tax regimes. For instance, if the new tax rules no longer encompass the concept of a $5,500,000 exemption per person, will all that exemption that was not used before the estate tax is repealed be lost forever? So, while President-Elect Trump goes about changing our tax system to make us more competitive in the world, and he is ”draining the swamp”, let us pay attention to details and reap the benefits of continuous planning.
For more information about this or any other estate planning topic, please contact us directly at 404-255-7400 or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.