Wealthy grandparents often make gifts to their grandchildren. A grandparent can give $13,000 per year to each grandchild without incurring gift tax. If gifts are made over several years, estate taxes upon the death of the grandparents can be substantially reduced.
There is a hidden trap in making gifts. The danger is that your grandchild may get divorced in the future. Some states consider all property owned by either spouse to be marital property which is subject to a 50/50 division upon divorce.
The problem is illustrated by a family that I now represent. The grandmother made gifts of stock of the family business to her granddaughter in the 80s and 90s. The grandmother died in 1997. Two years later, her granddaughter married a man the grandmother never met.
I did not know the grandmother, but have represented the grandmother’s daughter for the last several years. The daughter continued her mother’s pattern of making annual exclusion gifts to her daughter. Rather than direct gifts, the gifts were made to a Cristofani Trust (pdf) that benefits the daughter’s husband and all of her children and grandchildren.
The granddaughter recently obtained a divorce in a state that treats all property owned by either spouse as marital property. In accordance with state law, the judge awarded one-half of the granddaughter's stock in the family business to the granddaughter’s husband. The net result is that when the grandmother made gifts to her granddaughter, she was also making a gift to her granddaughter’s future ex-husband.
The stock awarded to the ex-husband was subject to a Shareholder’s Agreement, which allowed the company to purchase the stock from the ex-husband. As you might imagine, the family was upset about having to buy back the stock.
The laws of the states where the grandmother and granddaughter lived at the time of the gifts would not have included the gifts in the marital estate if the granddaughter had obtained a divorce in either one of those states. However, division of property is determined by the state in which the couple resides at the time of the divorce.
Fortunately, because the gifts by the daughter were made to a trust, these gifts were protected in the divorce. The moral of this story is to consider making gifts to a properly designed trust in order to reduce the chance that the donee will lose part of the gift if they subsequently obtain a divorce in the wrong state.