Before discussing the exception, we need to begin with the general rule. Internal Revenue Code Section 2503(a) provides that “taxable gifts” means the total amount of gifts made during the calendar year. A “gift” is a transfer of any type of property from one person to another for no or less than full fair market value. For example, if a person sells property with a fair market value of $100,000 to another for $100,000, no gift has occurred because the property was transferred for full value. If the property is instead given away for no payment, a gift of $100,000 has occurred. You may also be making a gift by allowing use of property without fair payment, even if the property itself is not outright transferred or is set to return to you. An example could be, residing in a property without rent or making an interest free loan. Determining “fair market value” can sometimes be difficult, but generally is the price which the property would trade hands for between unrelated individuals, both of which are fully informed about the characteristics of the property and under no compulsion to buy or sell it. Between unrelated parties, the presumption is that the transfer price is the fair market value. Between related parties, higher scrutiny is applied as it is more likely the transfer price was determined not by market value, but instead by charitable motivations.
IRC Section 2503(b) provides the annual exclusion rule. This rule exempts from “taxable gifts” an inflation adjusted at $10,000 (adjusted to $16,000 in 2022) annually made by any person to any other person. This annual amount prevents routine transfers like Christmas presents, birthday cards and paying for meals from requiring any special tax filings. Using up to the maximum amount each year for cash or security transfers is a common tool used by wealthy estate planning clients seeking to shift money out of their estates whose value may otherwise incur estate taxes at death. While $16,000 may not seem like much in the context of multi-million dollar estates, the multiplying force of “per donor” and “per recipient” can allow significant annual transfers. Consider a wealthy married couple with three children, each of whom are married with two children of their own. By using annual exclusion limits, each spouse can give to each child $16,000. They can give $16,000 to the spouse of their child plus additional $16,000 gifts from each grandparent to each grandchild. In this example, $384,000 a year could be transferred gift and estate tax free. The “annual” nature of the exclusion is measured by the calendar year, so it is common for transfers that may otherwise not qualify for the exemption to be split into separate smaller gifts on a December-of-one-year then January-of-the-next schedule.
Making annual exclusion gifts needs to be weighed against other options for the assets. Highly appreciated assets in estates without estate tax exposure would typically be better off being held until death to benefit from tax basis adjustment rules. Gifted assets generally have a “carryover” tax basis from the donor. Conversely, newly acquired stock expected to rise in value makes for a powerful transfer option, as the growth in value will occur under the new owner and has been removed from the donor’s estate at a relative discount compared to its anticipated future value.
To count as a gift completed in any given year, the gift must be of a “present interest” and “complete”. These requirements can become quite complex in certain types of advanced planning – such as Crummey withdrawal notices for gifts made with the intention to fund trusts or the ownership interests in highly restricted Family Investment LLCs. Generally, the requirements mean that the value and use of the property needs to have changed hands in an irrevocable manner and without contingencies. For example, telling a child in college “If you get all A’s this semester, I will give you $1,000” does not constitute a gift, but once the funds have changed hands, the gift would be complete. The same would apply to naming someone a beneficiary on a bank account as the designation is both revocable and payment is contingent on the grantor’s death. This differs from naming someone as a joint owner on an account, as that conveys an ownership interest at the time it is made. Failing to satisfy this requirement can create problems if large gifts are made in consecutive years. For example, if in 2022 a father gifts to their son a car worth $15,000 and then in 2023 gifts $15,000 worth of stock in their family business, then the gifts each year were under the annual exclusion limits. Conversely, if in 2022 the father tells his son, “Consider the car yours, I will get the title transferred soon”, then in 2023 the car is actually transferred and the gift of stock is made, then, because the gift of the car was not complete in 2022, both gifts took place in 2023 and the exemption is not large enough for both 2023 asset transfers.
If gifts are made in excess of the annual exclusion limit and no other exemption applies, then under the general rule of IRC Section 2503(a), the gift is a “taxable gift” and needs to be reported on IRS Form 709 – the gift tax return. However, this does not necessarily mean that any tax is owed – in fact it rarely does. Taxable gifts made during life reduce the amount of exemption available for the donor to use to protect assets from the estate tax at their death. To summarize, estate taxes operate by valuing the assets a person owned at their death, then applying a heavy tax on the value of assets over their exemption amount ($12,060,000 per person in 2022 – a historically high figure). So taxable gifts made during life reduce that exemption amount at death. If a person dies without owing estate taxes under the reduced amount, then no tax is collected at any point for the gifts made during their life. If the exemption is entirely used up, either during life or at death, then a tax is owed.
This combined system of gift and estate taxation makes sense when the legislative objectives are understood. Gifts and inheritances share the common trait of passing assets without compensation, usually to younger family members. Without the unified credit, large near-death or deathbed gifts could be used to avoid estate taxes, which are important for both revenue generation and curbing wealth inequality. However, without the annual exclusion exemption, the general rule of taxability would mean that every small routine gift would be a reportable gift. This would create a paperwork nightmare, both for average citizens whose tax filing burdens would substantially increase and for the IRS who would need to review and process these submissions. Further, because no tax is owed as long as there is available exemption, this massive paperwork burden would generate very little tax revenue as the vast majority of people do not have estates large enough to trigger the estate tax (at least under current exemption limits).
As a final note, it is important to understand that the annual exclusion gift exemption only applies for purposes of calculating taxable gifts – the exclusion does not apply for determining Medicaid eligibility and reportable transfers during the look back period, which are governed by entirely separate and far stricter rules. This article is meant to provide a basic overview of the gift tax system and annual exclusion gifting. As always, professional advice from an attorney or accountant should be sought when determining the effects of any specific course of action.