Shafae Law

Shafae Law

Shafae Law is a boutique law firm providing comprehensive estate planning, trust, estate, probate, and trust administration services located in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Filtering by Tag: gift tax

Are Holiday Gifts Subject to the Gift Tax?

The short answer: yup! But the more nuanced answer is that if you are giving a gift or receiving a gift in California, you probably won’t end up paying any gift taxes on holiday gifts.

Let’s take a look at the mechanics of a holiday gift. Without getting overly complicated, a holiday gift is a donative transfer of an asset from one person (donor) to another (donee). A “donative transfer” simply means that no one traded you or paid you anything for it (as in, it’s a true gift). Just like the government taxes your income (income taxes), certain goods sold (sales tax), and also real estate that you own (property taxes), it also taxes the donative transfer of assets. So the gift tax is a transfer tax.

A couple of details: the gift tax is only imposed by the federal government--so only the IRS will tax you, not the state of California--and it’s only imposed on the donor (the person giving the gift). If you receive a gift, and you live in California, you’re not on the hook for transfer taxes.

There are two types of gifts: those you give during life (intervivos) and those you make after you die (like through a will or trust). We’re going to focus on intervivos gifts since most holiday gifts are given during life.

Here’s why most of you will not owe any gift taxes on your holiday gifts. The federal government has this nifty rule called the “annual exclusion”. What that means is that each of you can make a gift up to $15,000, per year, per recipient, and not owe any taxes on that gift. In fact, the IRS doesn’t even want to know about it! You don’t have to report it. Married couples can combine that exclusion amount to $30,000 to one recipient, per year, and still fall within the same rule. So put another way, you’d have to be awfully generous this holiday season to have to deal with gift taxes.

Well, what if you are that generous? What happens if you make a gift that exceeds the annual exclusion?

Now we get to the “unified credit” or estate tax exemption amount. The unified credit is an amount the federal government allows you to gift during your entire lifetime, and combine that amount with whatever you own when you die, and not pay any transfer taxes if you are below the unified credit amount. It’s an amount set by law, and it increases every year based on inflation. The credit amount in the year that you die is what is applied. The exemption level for 2018 is $11.18 million. For example, let’s say you die in 2018 (sorry to bum you out!)--if the total of what you gifted during your life, and what you owned at death is less than $11.18 million then you would pay ZERO transfer taxes. For 2019, that number increases to $11.4 million.

Let’s recap: if you make a gift to someone that’s valued at $15,000 or less, per person, you don’t have to report it, and no transfer taxes are owed, and there’s no reduction in your unified credit amount. If you make a gift in excess of $15,000 but less than the unified credit (currently $11.18 million), you won’t owe any transfer taxes, but you’ll need to report it to the IRS. They’ll walk over to your file, and deduct the amount of the gift from your unified credit amount. For example, if you gift $20,000 to your favorite niece this year, you would report a $5,000 gift ($20,000 - $15,000 exclusion amount) and the IRS would walk over to your file and deduct $5,000 from your $11.18 million unified credit. Only $11.175 million left to give before you pay transfer taxes!

Happy Holidays! And don’t forget to send those ‘thank you’ cards!

Explaining the Gift and Estate Tax

The gift and estate tax are both transfer taxes. That means that they tax the transfer of assets from one person or entity to another. The amount of the tax is based on the value of the asset being transferred. For example, if I give you my 2007 Toyota Camry, then I am transferring an automobile from me to you. The value of that transfer would be the fair market value of the Camry when I transfer it. So we'd have to figure out how to value it (most likely look in Kelley Blue Book, or something similar) and the tax would be calculated based on that value, and I would owe any taxes generated on the transfer since I am the grantor (giver) of the gift. There are exemptions from paying the tax that I'll get into below. Also, this post only refers to federal transfer taxes. California does not impose state-level transfer taxes on gifts.

Let's first distinguish between the gift tax and the estate tax. I already told you that they're both transfer taxes. The gift tax is a tax on lifetime transfers. The estate tax--also affectionately called the "death tax" (they're the same thing)--refers to a tax on gifts through death (think: gifts made from wills or trusts; inheritances). So in my example above, about giving you my car, that would implicate the gift tax and not the estate tax. I gave it to you while I was alive.

If you make a lifetime gift, the grantor of the gift would owe the taxes. The same is true for death gifts. The estate of the person who made the gift would (typically) owe any estate taxes owed. (Some states have what is called an "inheritance tax" where the recipient also owes a tax, but California does not have an inheritance tax.)

Now that we've sorted out when each tax is implicated, let's figure out when you actually owe anything.

Both the gift tax and estate tax share a unified exemption amount. What that means in plain English is that you can transfer--either through life or death--a certain value of property, and you won't owe ANY transfer taxes. And that exemption amount is a whopping $11.18 million per person! That is not a typo. The latest tax law passed by Congress increased each person's exemption amount from $5 million to $10 million. And that amount is adjusted for inflation each year. That's how we got to $11.18 million. As of January 1, 2018, anyone making a gift may transfer up to $11.18 million worth of assets and pay zero taxes. The exemption amount is determined in the year you make the gift, or the year in which you died. That pretty much means that these transfer taxes do not apply to more than 99.98% of the population. If you're one of the lucky few who have more than that value in assets, then the transfer tax rate for the amount in excess is a flat 40%.

Please note that in 2026, this amount reverts back to the $5 million amount, and it will be adjusted for inflation to be somewhere around the $6 million mark per person.

A benefit that married couples get is that spouses can effectively combine their exemption amounts. So married couples can give away upwards of $22.36 million, and owe zero transfer taxes.

Wait, does this mean that I can cut a check for $1 million to my best friend, and I'll owe zero gift taxes? Yup, that's right. Except that I would need to let the IRS know that I made that gift by filing a gift tax return (Form 709). The IRS would then go over to my file and reduce my $11.18 million exemption by $1 million. Only $10.18 left to give away until I owe any transfer taxes!

Maybe some of you have heard that you are limited to a certain amount of gifts per year. What's that all about?

You're probably thinking of what's called the annual exclusion. The annual exclusion is an amount the IRS lets you gift in one single year, per recipient, and not have to file that gift tax return. If your gift is below the annual exclusion amount, then you don't have to tell the IRS about it. That amount is currently set at $15,000 per year, per recipient. Married couples may combine their gifts, so they effectively may make gifts up to $30,000 per year, per recipient and not have to file a gift tax return notifying the IRS.

So going back to my $1 million lifetime gift example, I would only notify the IRS of $985,000 of the gift since I get to use my annual exclusion on that gift to my best friend. If I'm married, I only need to tell them about $970,000 of the gift.

As you can see, transfer taxes are probably not going to be an issue for you. Actually, let me put it another way: if transfer taxes are a concern for you, we should hang out this weekend!


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