Articles Posted in Estate Taxes

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The Generation skipping transfer tax seems complicated to understand and it absolutely should only be dealt with by a seasoned professional, but there are some hallmarks that are present in each such transaction so that individual taxpayers know when the tax will apply and can follow a general conversation about the topic. To begin with, the name may seem a bit confusing at first. The skipping that the name refers to is the tax that would (should according to some lawmakers and IRS officials no doubt) be incurred when a second generation passes on the inherited asset.

The generation skipping transfer tax was first introduced in 1976 to avoid what Congress saw as an avoidance of the estate tax by wealthy families that could afford to hire attorneys to create complicated, long term trusts that avoided the estate tax. The net result was that less wealthy, middle class families were paying a disproportionate share of the estate taxes; in other words, those who could least afford it were paying more of the tax. The generation skipping transfer tax in its current incarnation creates tax liability anytime a transfer of an asset or money is transferred more than one generation from the grantor or to someone who is at least 37.5 years younger.

The State of New York’s estate tax does not mirror the federal estate tax regime in many ways. A lack of careful planning may result in a New York estate tax liability even where the estate is not taxed at the federal level.

New York’s Estate Tax

New York’s estate tax, like its federal counterpart, is a tax levied on the value of the decedent’s estate upon death, and before distribution. New York’s estate tax parallels the federal estate tax with some exceptions.

Julius Schaller was a Hungarian-American immigrant was a wealthy grocery store owner who had acquired substantial assets that exceeded the threshold for paying estate taxes. In order to avoid the tax burden, he established a special scholarship foundation for Hungarian immigrants who pursue performing arts. He named it the Educational Assistance Foundation for Descendants of Hungarian Immigrants in the Performing Arts. Estate planning attorneys often create such organizations for wealthy individuals. However, it must be a legitimate nonprofit organization.

The foundation was established as a nonprofit organization and granted tax-exempt status under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code. But there was a catch. The foundation was a rouse. It hardly advertised the scholarship, and during the first two years of operation, the scholarships were only awarded to his heirs – specifically a nephew, niece, and another member of the family. This is a problem.

The IRS does not take kindly to those who set up fake organizations under the guise of providing a legitimate scholarship or philanthropic service to the public. As such, the IRS revoked the foundation’s nonprofit status, and litigation ensued.

The House of Representatives recently passed a bill that would eliminate the federal estate tax. The bill is expected to pass in the Senate but be vetoed by the President, thus most likely preventing it from becoming law. However, the bill does bring up an interesting aspect of the federal estate tax, namely, how small businesses and family farms need to estate plan in order to protect their assets.

Federal and State Estate Taxes

Currently, the federal estate tax applies to any estate that is over $5.43 million, and any assets over that amount in the estate can be taxed up to forty percent. State estate and inheritance taxes vary and must be checked on a state by state basis; however, some states can take a significant portion of the estate’s worth if the assets are not properly shielded by an estate plan. For example, Ohio repealed its estate tax in 2013, but Maryland has both estate and inheritance taxes up to sixteen percent on estates worth more than $1 million.

It’s not uncommon to turn on the television and see an advertisement for a state that is enticing visitors to vacation or move there permanently. However, more and more states across the nation are also trying to advertise that they are a great place to die. In 2015, four states are increasing their state-level estate tax exemption, reducing or eliminating altogether the amount of state estate tax that heirs will have to pay.

States Lowering Estate Taxes

As of January 1 next year, Tennessee’s estate tax exemption will jump to $5 million from $2 million this year. In addition, Maryland’s raised its estate tax exemption level from $1 million this year to $1.5 million next year. Minnesota is increasing to $1.5 million from $1.2 million, and in April 2015, New York’s exemption level will rise from $2.062 million to $3.125 million.

We often discuss the importance for local families to account for the New York estate tax. Far more media coverage is given to the federal tax, and some local residents are under the mistaken assumption that the state law mirrors the federal. It currently does not. Even families who do not have asset to trigger the federal tax may still need to plan appropriately for the New York tax on estates.

However, if current plans are carried out, in a few years .there may be much more congruence between the state and federal rules. That is because earlier this month New York changed exemption levels for the estate tax. Previously, assets over $1 million were exposed to the tax at a 16% top rate. Now, however, the exemption level is raised to slightly more than $2 million ($2,062,500). Not only that, but that level is set to steadily increase or five years until, in 2019, the exemption level matches the federal exemption amount at that time (projected to be $5.9 million).

Important Provisions in the Estate Tax Law

The idea of “portability” is an important part of many estate plans. Portability is technically an informal word referring to a federal tax-saving option using the deceased spouse’s unused exemption (DSUE). Essentially, portability is a tool for married couples that, when used prudently, can shave millions of dollars off an estate tax bill.

Under the current law, assets under $5.34 million are exempt from the federal estate tax (though the New York tax kicks in far lower at $1 million). Importantly, there are unlimited tax-free transfers allowed between spouses. That means that if one spouse dies and leaves everything to the other, then there will not be a federal estate tax burden, regardless of how many assets are passed on.

However, when the surviving spouse passes away and transfers those assets to others–perhaps adult children–then the tax would apply to assets over the individual exemption level of $5.34 million. But portability changes that. Instead of using only an individual exemption, a surviving couple may be able to use any unused exemption from their former spouse in addition to their own. This means that up to $10.68 million may be exempt from the tax. In short, portability can save an estate millions of dollars in taxes.

Politicians are engaged in a seemingly endless debate about tax rates, “loopholes,” spending cuts and similar issues. That is because a new budget must be passed every year, and each proposal undoubtedly comes with suggested changes to various tax and spend rules and regulations. For example, President Obama recently released his proposed 2015 budget. Even a cursory glance at the document reveals that, if passed, it would have clear implications on wealth transfers and estate planning for New York residents.

Estate Tax Proposal

Most notably, the proposed budget calls for the estate tax provisions to revert back to where they were in 2009–an exemption level of only $3.5 million and a top tax rate of 45%. This is in contrast to the current $5.34 million exemption level and 40% top rate. The current tax is pegged to inflation, and so the exemption level will rise slightly each year. Per the terms of the proposed budget, this new tax level and rate would not go into effect until 2018.

A somewhat “high brow” economic working paper has been making the rounds among estate planning attorneys, economists, financial planners, and policymakers in recent weeks. The article, viewable online in full, is entitled “Taxing More (Large) Family Bequests: Why, When, Where?”

While the paper is quite dense, the central themes are those often faced by current policymakers and affecting families as they plan their estate.

Essentially, the paper discusses a well-known taxation “puzzle.” Over the past few decades tax revenues from wealth transfers (i.e. estate taxes) have decreased. This is true both in the United States and elsewhere. At the same time, tax revenues based on lifetime gains have grown in recent years with no sign of stopping.

Discussion about the estate and trust tax issues usually centers on political debate about the rates and exemption levels or case-studies of the tax burden for famous or wealthy individuals. Far less often discussed is general information about the tax, including how much was actually collected, the total number of individuals affected, and similar details.

Fortunately, to fill in that gap, every year the IRS releases statistics, including those affected trusts and estates. A rather detailed list of information can be found in various spreadsheet on the IRS website. Also provided is a handy sheet offering a “snapshot” of many interesting trust and estate tax details. The most recent year’s tally was just released, providing a helpful primer for those interested in how these federal taxes actually affect residents.

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