This is the fourth article of a series dealing with the Tax Relief, Unemployment Insurance Reauthorization, and Job Creation Act of 2010 (“Act”). For the first three articles, see:

Part 1 – Charitable IRA Rollovers
Part 2 – Estate Tax/Carryover Basis Election for 2010 Decedents
Part 3 – Temporary $5 Million Estate Tax Exemption

The Act temporarily increases the gift tax exemption to $5 million for 2011 and $5 million increased by inflation for 2012. For example, if inflation for 2011 is 2%, the gift tax exemption will be $5.1 million in 2012. The Act decreases the gift tax exemption to $1 million for gifts in 2013 or later.

In addition to increasing the gift tax exemption, the Act set the maximum gift tax rate at 35% for 2011 and 2012. The Act increases the maximum gift tax rate to 55% for 2013 and future years.

The temporary nature of the higher gift tax exemption provides an incentive to make gifts in 2011 and 2012. If you choose not to make gifts and then die in a year when the estate tax exemption is lower than $5 million, you will pay significantly more estate taxes than if you made the gift. Assume for example, that an individual who currently has $6 million of assets dies on January 1, 2013. If he makes $5 million of gifts on or before December 31, 2012, his estate will owe $550,000 of estate taxes based on current law. If he makes $1 million or less of taxable gifts, he will owe approximately $2.6 million based on current law. Thus, making gifts can reduce taxes by as much as $2,050,000. Furthermore, income and appreciation occurring after the date of the gift will be removed from your estate, which increases the reduction in estate taxes.

Some commentators believe that the IRS may attempt to “clawback” as much as $1,385,000 of these tax savings if you die in 2013 or later. The analysis is confusing because you have to make calculations by pretending that the law in prior years was different than it really was. Nevertheless, I do not think the law permits a clawback. Even if a clawback were permitted, making gifts will still yield a substantial reduction in estate taxes.

Many of our clients have already begun to take advantage of the higher gift tax exemption. Several others are evaluating different strategies for taking advantage of the additional exemption.

The simplest method is a straight gift. Due to the current economic environment, a number of our clients have made loans to their children. Some of them are forgiving the loan obligations now that this can be done without federal gift tax consequences.

While a direct gift can be very effective, we often encourage our clients to leverage their gift by transferring a “discounted” asset. Good examples are non-voting stock in a family corporation or limited partnership interests in a limited partnership, or fractional interests in real estate.

We generally recommend that gifts be made to a grantor trust. This enables the donor to continue to pay income taxes on income earned by the trust and to further decrease his or her estate.

Some of our clients want to take advantage of the gift tax exemption yet are concerned that they will run out of cash in their later years. Fortunately, there are some gifting strategies that allow the donor to maintain access to cash flow. These strategies will be discussed in a future article

I am predicting that Tennessee gift tax collections will set all-time records on April 15, 2012 and again on April 15, 2013. Tennessee allows annual exclusion gifts just like the IRS. However, Tennessee does not have any exemption from gift tax. Therefore, you will generally pay Tennessee gift taxes when you make taxable gifts to take advantage of the higher federal gift tax exemption. In a future article, we will discuss methods for making gifts that do not require you to pay Tennessee gift taxes.

In summary, the $5 million federal gift tax exemption creates a two year opportunity for decreasing the size of your taxable estate. If you choose not to take advantage of this opportunity, your children will pay more federal estate taxes unless the law is changed. Some methods of utilizing the exemption allow you to maintain access to cash flow. There are also methods for making gifts that do not require the payment of Tennessee gift taxes.