How Does the New Tax Law Impact Estate Planning?

The “Tax Cuts and Jobs Act” that President Trump signed into law last month still has a lot of the country scratching their heads, trying to figure out if their taxes will be going up or down. One thing that is clear is that the new law makes a big change to estate taxes.

According to a recent survey from the Pew Research Center, about two-thirds (65%) of those surveyed feel they understand how the tax law might affect them and their families at least somewhat well. Before sitting down to look through the legislation, we would have put ourselves in that camp too. But the deeper into the weeds we got, the more we realized there was a lot in the bill that we did not know was there.

Though there has been a lot of news coverage about the new law, a lot of it doesn’t go into great detail, particularly about what happened to the estate tax. This blog post seeks to remedy that.

Although Trump vowed to get rid of the federal estate tax entirely, it still exists. However, it now kicks in at a much higher income level. The new law temporarily doubles the exemption amount for estate, gift, and generation-skipping taxes from $5 million to $10 million. This means couples can go together to shelter $20 million. Each year, including 2018, this number will be indexed for inflation.

This new limit is in effect for tax years 2018 through 2025. In 2026, if no extension is passed, the limit will revert back to $5 million. There is no way to predict if an extension will be passed before then, or even if the exemption amounts will be otherwise tinkered with in the meantime, so it is better to take certain actions now. For example, if your estate plan involves gifting to trusts, you might want to do that gifting while the exemption amount is at this higher level.

It is also important to note a couple of things that were not changed by the new law.

First, the new law doesn’t make changes to the rules that step-up basis at death. That means that when you die, your heirs’ cost basis in the assets you leave them will be stepped-up to the market rate.

Second, the annual gift tax exclusion laws were also left untouched by the new law. You can still gift an unlimited number of people $15,000 per year (up from $14,000 in 2017 thanks to indexing for inflation) without eating into your $10 million lifetime gift/estate tax exemption. And once again, this can be doubled by couples, so a couple can now gift $30,000 per person per year.

Consulting with your estate planning attorney and financial adviser about the new law should be at the top of your to-do list so you don’t miss the opportunity to take advantage it.
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