Portability Is Not a Worthwhile Planning Option

The Tax Relief, Unemployment Insurance Reauthorization, and Job Creation Act of 2010 authorized portability of the federal estate and gift tax exemption for married couples. This means that if one spouse dies without having used his or her entire exemption, the survivor may use it.

Portability has been widely hailed as a great estate planning benefit. The benefit is that the first spouse to die can leave everything to the survivor rather than having to create a credit shelter trust. 

Our view is that the benefit of portability is overrated; furthermore, it creates a trap for the unwary. We are not advising any of our married clients to plan on using portability.

The foremost reason that we do not favor portability is because the statute that created it also required the law to expire on December 31, 2012. President Obama and many members of Congress have indicated that they would like to extend portability beyond this sunset date; however, we have learned that it is foolhardy to plan on the assumption that future tax laws will be consistent with sensible statements made by politicians. 

Even if portability is made “permanent” by future legislation, there are many pitfalls to using portability. First, there is no inflation adjustment. For example, assume a married man dies this year and leaves his entire $5 million estate to his wife. When the wife dies, she will be able to use her husband’s unused exemption, but without any adjustment for inflation. If the husband had placed the $5 million in a credit shelter trust instead of transferring it to his wife, appreciation of the value of the trust during his wife’s remaining lifetime would have also escaped estate taxes.

The Tennessee inheritance tax exemption is not portable. If you fail to use the exemption in the estate of the first spouse to die, it will be lost forever. This will result in higher Tennessee inheritance taxes for the survivor’s estate.

Those who plan to establish trusts that last for the lifetimes of their children and beyond, are concerned about generation-skipping transfer tax exemption. The GST exemption is not portable. However, if the first to die establishes a trust and allocates GST exemption to the trust, the trust will be exempt from generation-skipping taxes for up to 360 years.

In order to claim portability, the estate of the first spouse to die must file a timely federal estate tax return. I predict that a lot of surviving spouses who are not otherwise required to file an estate tax return will fail to file timely returns in order to claim portability. 

There are numerous portability issues associated with the remarriage of the surviving spouse. It will likely take years for regulations and court cases to fully flesh out these issues. All things considered, we recommend that you disregard portability as a planning tool, at least until the law is made permanent.

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