Estate Planning for Noncitizen Spouses
Today, 44% of Californians were born out of the state. And the proportion of foreign-born residents (28%) is nearly double that of transplants from other states (16%). From an estate planning standpoint, the big-picture concepts hold true whether or not someone is born in California. Non-Californians own property just like Californians do. Similarly, most everyone has loved ones who they care for most, regardless of citizenship or residency.
However, tax treatment is different depending on one’s citizenship and residency. Complications arise when one or both spouses in a married couple are not U.S. citizens.
If you and/or your spouse are non-citizens of the United States, then two major concepts will play a role in your estate plan: 1) the Unlimited Marital Deduction; and 2) the Gift and Estate Tax Exemption.
Unlimited Marital Deduction
Married citizen couples enjoy a tax benefit called the “unlimited marital deduction”. Citizen spouses can transfer property back and forth between each other—lifetime gifts or transfers on death—and it is never a taxable event. Non-citizen spouses do not get this benefit. If your spouse is not a U.S. citizen, and you give them a gift, then it is only tax-free up to $154,000 a year (in 2019). (This amount is indexed for inflation). For example, adding your non-citizen spouse onto the title of your family home could potentially become a taxable gift. Or upon the citizen spouse’s death, the non-citizen inherits all of the marital assets without the marital deduction. Thankfully, estate planners have techniques, like a Qualified Domestic Trust, to assist non-citizens avoid unnecessary taxable events.
Gift and Estate Tax Exemption
Married couples who are both citizens, or if they are legal permanent residents (green card holders), are granted a unified gift and estate tax exemption. In plain terms, if citizens or green card holders transfer property in the amount of $11.4 million (in 2019) or less then no gift or estate taxes are owed. (This amount is also indexed for inflation). That amount includes all lifetime gifts with whatever you own at death. In large part, citizens do not need to worry about making transfers to their citizen spouses. However, non-citizens only receive a $60,000 exemption from the gift and estate tax. That’s not a typo. Leaving property to a non-citizen could result in a lot of estate taxes without proper planning. For more about the gift and estate tax, read our previous blog post.
Putting the above concepts to work, if spouses transfer property between each other, and the recipient spouse is a non-citizen, then the marital deduction is nonexistent, and the citizen spouse would have to employ their gift and estate tax exemption, if they have one, where they otherwise would not have to. Then later, if the non-citizen spouse passes property to any children, the non-citizen spouse would not have the gift and estate tax exemption a citizen spouse would have. The result could be an avoidable disaster.
Non-citizens largely have the same desires and wishes that citizens have. Their legal status is merely different than that of citizens. However, that legal distinction does create challenges for which a plan is necessary. Do not leave your loved ones with an undesired mess. Get ahead of the issues by planning now.