President Trump signed into law H.R. 1, which has a major impact on estate planning. The new law doubled the federal exemption for estate tax, gift tax and the tax on generation-skipping transfers (GST), starting January 1, 2018; the lifetime exemption for each of these taxes is now $11.2 million per taxpayer. Married couples together have a total of $22.4 million of lifetime exemption. The exemptions are reduced by lifetime transfers prior to 2018 and are indexed for future inflation. The annual gift tax exclusion amount also increased to $15,000 per donee per year.
The increased gift, estate and GST tax exemptions are not permanent. This part of the Tax Act is scheduled to expire in 2026 and return to the prior exemption amounts ($5.6 million plus inflation after 2018). Changes in control of Congress and the Presidency could also terminate the increased exemptions. While it may make sense for some clients to take advantage of the increased exemptions to engage in additional estate planning, there is also a potential risk that the new exemptions will unintentionally alter existing estate plans, requiring important immediate changes.
As the increased exemptions may significantly skew a client’s existing estate plan, it is important for all clients to review their estate planning documents to make sure they continue to reflect their intentions. Many estate plans for married couples use a formula to divide assets at the first death between a “marital” portion passing to or held in a trust for the surviving spouse and a “bypass” portion intended to bypass the estate of the surviving spouse. The bypass portion may be allocated to a trust for the surviving spouse and/or descendants. It may also be allocated directly to descendants, skipping the surviving spouse entirely, or may provide less benefits to the surviving spouse than the marital trust. Similarly, at the second death, the estate plan may have a formula dividing assets, based on the GST exemption, between children and grandchildren.
Depending on the exact language of the document, these divisions may be very different now because of the larger exemptions. For some clients, the new division will be acceptable. For others, it will be important to update the language of their estate planning documents to avoid a sharp reduction in what the surviving spouse receives and what the children and grandchildren receive.
Clients may also want to take advantage of the opportunity to pass larger portions of their wealth to younger family members at minimal tax cost, through lifetime gifts and other traditional wealth transfer techniques.
The estate, gift and GST provisions of the new Tax Act present substantial new planning opportunities. They also have a potentially significant impact on existing estate plans. Clients need to review their existing documents to determine this impact.