Begin estate planning early and review your plan regularly

As difficult as it is, accumulating wealth is only the first step to providing a financially secure future for your family. You also need to develop a comprehensive estate plan. The earlier you begin, the more options you’ll have to grow and transfer your wealth in a way that minimizes taxes and leaves the legacy you desire. Then review your plan regularly to account for changes in your finances, family and tax law.

For example, while the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA), signed into law in December of 2017, doesn’t repeal the estate tax as was originally proposed, it still impacts estate planning.

Estate tax

The estate tax rate remains at 40%. The estate tax exemption is annually indexed for inflation and increased to $5.49 million for 2017. Under the TCJA, the exemption base amount doubles from $5 million to $10 million, and the inflation-adjusted amount for 2018 is $11.18 million.

To avoid unintended consequences, review your estate plan in light of the changing exemption. A review will allow you to make the most of available exemptions and ensure your assets will be distributed according to your wishes.

Transfer tax exemptions and rates


Estate tax exemption* Gift tax exemption GST tax exemption Estate, gift and GST tax rate
2018 $11.18 million $11.18 million $11.18 million 40%
2017 $5.49 million $5.49 million $5.49 million 40%
Future years Indexed for inflation Indexed for inflation Indexed for inflation 40%
*Less any gift tax exemption already used during life.

Gift tax

The gift tax continues to follow the estate tax exemption and rates. (See the chart above.) Any gift tax exemption used during life reduces the estate tax exemption available at death. Using up some of your exemption during your lifetime can be tax-smart, depending on your situation and goals. (See the Case Study #1 in the right-hand box, “When taxable gifts save taxes.”)

But keep in mind that you can exclude certain gifts of up to $15,000 per recipient in 2018 ($30,000 per recipient if your spouse elects to split the gift with you or you’re giving community property) without using up any of your gift and estate tax exemption. These amounts are increased from $14,000 and $28,000, respectively, for 2017.

Case Study
Why annual exclusion gifts can be a powerful tax saver

In 2018, Steve and Carol combine their $15,000 annual exclusions so that their three children and their children’s spouses, along with their six grandchildren, each receive $30,000. The result is that $360,000 is removed from the couple’s estates free of taxes.

If the same amounts were transferred to the recipients upon Steve’s or Carol’s death instead — and no estate or GST tax exemption was available — the tax hit, at the current 40% rate, would be $144,000 in federal estate taxes and $72,000 in GST taxes. So the annual exclusion gifts could potentially save the family $216,000 in taxes. If they maximize their annual exclusion gifts each year, just think about how much tax they could save!

Warning: You need to use your for exclusion by December 31. The exclusion doesn’t carry over from year to year. For example, if you didn’t make an annual exclusion gift to your granddaughter in 2017, you can’t add $14,000 to your 2018 exclusion to make a $29,000 tax-free gift to her this year. (See the Case Study in the right-hand box, “Why annual exclusion gifts can be a powerful tax saver,” for an example of just how effective the annual exclusion can be.)

GST tax

The generation-skipping transfer tax generally applies to transfers (both during your lifetime and at death) made to people two generations or more below you, such as your grandchildren. This is in addition to any gift or estate tax due.

The GST tax also continues to follow the estate tax exemption, and the GST tax rate continues to be the same as the top estate tax rate. (See the chart above.)

State taxes

Even before the TCJA, many states imposed estate tax at a lower threshold than the federal government did. Now, the differences in some states may be even more dramatic. To avoid unexpected tax liability or other unintended consequences, it’s critical to consider state law.

The nuances are many; be sure to consult a tax advisor with expertise regarding your particular state.

Exemption portability

If one spouse dies and part (or all) of his or her estate tax exemption is unused at his or her death, the estate can elect to permit the surviving spouse to use the deceased spouse’s remaining estate tax exemption.

Warning: Portability is available only for the most recently deceased spouse. It doesn’t apply to the GST tax exemption and isn’t recognized by many states. And it must be elected on an estate tax return for the deceased spouse — even if no tax is due. In fact, an estate tax return may need to be filed solely for this reason.

The portability election will provide flexibility if proper planning hasn’t been done before the first spouse’s death. But portability doesn’t protect future growth on assets from estate tax like applying the exemption to a credit shelter trust does. Trusts offer other benefits as well, such as creditor protection, remarriage protection, GST tax planning and state estate tax benefits.

So married couples should still consider marital and credit shelter trusts — and transferring assets to each other to the extent necessary to fully fund them at the first death. Transfers to a spouse (during life or at death) are tax-free under the marital deduction, assuming he or she is a U.S. citizen.

Tax-smart giving

Giving away assets now will help you reduce the size of your taxable estate.

Here are some strategies for tax-smart giving:

Choose gifts wisely. Consider both estate and income tax consequences and the economic aspects of any gifts you’d like to make:

  • To minimize estate tax, gift property with the greatest future appreciation potential.
  • To minimize your beneficiary’s income tax, gift property that hasn’t appreciated significantly while you’ve owned it.
  • To minimize your own income tax, don’t gift property that’s declined in value. Instead, consider selling the property so you can take the tax loss and then gift the sale proceeds.


Plan gifts to grandchildren carefully. Annual exclusion gifts are generally exempt from the GST tax, so they also help you preserve your GST tax exemption for other transfers. For gifts that don’t qualify for the exclusion to be completely tax-free, you generally must apply both your GST tax exemption and your gift tax exemption.

So, for example, if you make an annual exclusion gift to your grandson and you want to give him an additional $30,000 in the same year to help him make a down payment on his first home, you’ll have to use $30,000 of your GST tax exemption plus $30,000 of your gift tax exemption to avoid any tax on the transfer.

Gift interests in your business or a family limited partnership (FLP). If you own a business, you can leverage your gift tax exclusions and exemption by gifting ownership interests, which may be eligible for valuation discounts. So, for example, if the combined discount is 25%, in 2018 you can gift an ownership interest equal to as much as $20,000 tax-free because the discounted value doesn’t exceed the $15,000 annual exclusion.

Another way to benefit from valuation discounts is to set up a family limited partnership. You fund the FLP with assets such as public or private stock and real estate, and then gift limited partnership interests.

Warning: The IRS may challenge valuation discounts. A professional independent valuation is recommended. The IRS also is scrutinizing FLPs, so be sure to set up and operate yours properly.

Pay tuition and medical expenses. You may pay these expenses for a loved one without the payment being treated as a taxable gift, as long as the payment is made directly to the provider.

Make gifts to charity. Donations to qualified charities aren’t subject to gift taxes and may provide an income tax deduction.


Trusts can provide significant tax savings while preserving some control over what happens to the transferred assets. Here are some trusts you may want to consider and the estate tax benefits they provide:

Credit shelter trust. Also referred to as a “bypass trust,” this is funded at the first spouse’s death to take advantage of his or her full estate tax exemption. The trust primarily benefits the children, but the surviving spouse can receive income, and perhaps a portion of principal, during his or her lifetime, and the trust provides some advantages over the exemption portability election.

QDOT. A qualified domestic trust can allow you and your non-U.S.-citizen spouse to take advantage of the unlimited marital deduction.

QTIP trust. A qualified terminable interest property trust passes trust income to your spouse for life, with the remainder of the trust assets passing as you’ve designated. The trust gives you (not your surviving spouse) control over the final disposition of your property and is often used to protect the interests of children from a previous marriage.

ILIT. An irrevocable life insurance trust owns one or more policies on your life, and it manages and distributes policy proceeds according to your wishes. An ILIT keeps insurance proceeds, which could otherwise be subject to estate tax, out of your estate (and possibly your spouse’s). You aren’t allowed to retain any powers over the policy, such as the right to change the beneficiary. The trust can be designed so that it can make a loan to your estate for liquidity needs, such as paying estate tax.

Crummey trust. This trust allows you to enjoy both the control of a trust that will transfer assets at a later date and the tax savings of an outright gift. ILITs are often structured as Crummey trusts so that annual exclusion gifts can fund the ILIT’s payment of insurance premiums.

GRAT and GRUT. Grantor-retained annuity trusts and grantor-retained unitrusts allow you to give assets to your children today — removing them from your taxable estate at a reduced value for gift tax purposes (provided you survive the trust’s term) — while you receive payments back from the trust for a specified term. At the end of the term, the principal may pass to the beneficiaries or remain in the trust. In a GRAT, the income you receive is an annuity based on the assets’ value on the date the trust is formed. In a GRUT, the payments are a set percentage of the assets’ value as redetermined each year. These trusts may be especially beneficial in a low-interest rate environment like we have today.

QPRT. A qualified personal residence trust is similar to a GRAT except that, instead of holding assets, the trust holds your home — and, instead of receiving annuity payments, you enjoy the right to live in your home for a set number of years. At the end of the term, your beneficiaries own the home. You may continue to live there if the trustees or owners agree and you pay fair market rent.

Dynasty trust. The dynasty trust allows assets to skip several generations of taxation. You can fund the trust either during your lifetime by making gifts or at death in the form of bequests. The trust remains in existence from generation to generation. Because the beneficiaries have restrictions on their access to the trust funds, the trust is excluded from their estates. If any of the beneficiaries have a real need for funds, the trust can make distributions to them. If you live in a state that hasn’t abolished the rule against perpetuities, special planning is required.

Life insurance

Life insurance can replace income, offer a way to equalize assets among children active and inactive in a family business, provide cash to pay estate tax or be a vehicle for passing leveraged funds free of estate tax.

Life insurance proceeds generally aren’t subject to income tax. But, if you own the policy, the proceeds will be included in your estate:

  • Ownership is determined by several factors, including who has the right to name the beneficiaries of the proceeds. Generally, to reap maximum tax benefits you must sacrifice some control and flexibility as well as some ease and cost of administration.
  • Determining who should own insurance on your life is a complex task because there are many possible owners, including you or your spouse, your children, your business, and an ILIT.
  • To choose the best owner, consider why you want the insurance, such as to replace income, to provide liquidity or to transfer wealth to your heirs. You must also determine the importance to you of tax implications, control, flexibility, and ease and cost of administration.
The information in this Tax Guide is for general guidance only, and does not constitute legal advice, tax advice, accounting services, investment advice, or professional consulting. The information should not and may not be used as a substitute for consultation with professional tax, accounting, legal, or other competent advisers. Before making decisions or taking actions, consult a professional adviser who has been provided with all pertinent facts relevant in your particular situation. Tax articles in this Guide are not intended to be used, and cannot be used, for the purpose of avoiding accuracy-related penalties that may be imposed on a taxpayer.
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