The annual gift tax exclusion allows you to transfer up to $15,000 per beneficiary gift-tax-free for 2020, without tapping your lifetime gift and estate tax exemption. And you can double the exclusion to $30,000 per beneficiary if you elect to split the gifts with your spouse.

It’s important to understand the rules surrounding gift-splitting to avoid unintended — and potentially costly — consequences.

Understanding the pitfalls

Common mistakes made when splitting gifts include:

Failing to make the election. To elect to split gifts, the donor must file a gift tax return and the nondonor must consent by checking a box on the return and signing it or, if a gift exceeds $30,000, filing his or her own gift tax return. Once you make the election, you must split all gifts to third parties for the year.

Splitting gifts with a noncitizen. To be eligible for gift-splitting, one spouse must be a U.S. citizen.

Divorcing and remarrying. To split gifts, you must be married at the time of the gift. You’re ineligible for gift-splitting if you divorce and either spouse remarries during the calendar year in which the gift was made.

Gifting a future interest. Gift-splitting can be used only for present interests. So, a gift in trust qualifies only if the beneficiary receives a present interest — for example, by providing the beneficiary with so-called Crummeywithdrawal rights.

Benefiting your spouse. Gift-splitting is ineffective if you make the gift to your spouse, rather than a third party; if you give your spouse a general power of appointment over the gifted property; or if your spouse is a potential beneficiary of the gift. For example, if you make a gift to a trust of which your spouse is a beneficiary, gift-splitting is prohibited unless the chances your spouse will benefit are extremely remote.

Be aware that, if you die within three years of splitting a gift, some of the tax benefits may be lost.

Extended gift tax return deadline is approaching

Remember that when you elect to split gifts with your spouse, you, the donor, must file a gift tax return and your spouse, the nondonor, must consent by checking a box on the return and signing it. Bear in mind that because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the IRS extended the gift tax filing deadline to July 15, 2020, so now is the time to act. Contact us with any questions regarding making gifts.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

As we head toward the gift-giving season, you may be considering giving gifts of cash or securities to your loved ones. Taxpayers can transfer substantial amounts free of gift taxes to their children and others each year through the use of the annual federal gift tax exclusion. The amount is adjusted for inflation annually. For 2019, the exclusion is $15,000.

The exclusion covers gifts that you make to each person each year. Therefore, if you have three children, you can transfer a total of $45,000 to them this year (and next year) free of federal gift taxes. If the only gifts made during the year are excluded in this way, there’s no need to file a federal gift tax return. If annual gifts exceed $15,000, the exclusion covers the first $15,000 and only the excess is taxable. Further, even taxable gifts may result in no gift tax liability thanks to the unified credit (discussed below).

Note: this discussion isn’t relevant to gifts made from one spouse to the other spouse, because these gifts are gift tax-free under separate marital deduction rules.

Gifts by married taxpayers

If you’re married, gifts to individuals made during a year can be treated as split between you and your spouse, even if the cash or gift property is actually given to an individual by only one of you. By “gift-splitting,” up to $30,000 a year can be transferred to each person by a married couple, because two annual exclusions are available. For example, if you’re married with three children, you and your spouse can transfer a total of $90,000 each year to your children ($30,000 × 3). If your children are married, you can transfer $180,000 to your children and their spouses ($30,000 × 6).

If gift-splitting is involved, both spouses must consent to it. We can assist you with preparing a gift tax return (or returns) to indicate consent.

“Unified” credit for taxable gifts

Even gifts that aren’t covered by the exclusion, and that are therefore taxable, may not result in a tax liability. This is because a tax credit wipes out the federal gift tax liability on the first taxable gifts that you make in your lifetime, up to $11,400,000 (for 2019). However, to the extent you use this credit against a gift tax liability, it reduces (or eliminates) the credit available for use against the federal estate tax at your death.

Giving gifts of appreciated assets

Let’s say you own stocks and other marketable securities (outside of your retirement accounts) that have skyrocketed in value since they were acquired. A 15% or 20% tax rate generally applies to long-term capital gains. But there’s a 0% long-term capital gains rate for those in lower tax brackets. Even if your income is high, your family members in lower tax brackets may be able to benefit from the 0% long-term capital gains rate. Giving them appreciated stock instead of cash might allow you to eliminate federal tax liability on the appreciation, or at least significantly reduce it. The recipients can sell the assets at no or a low federal tax cost. Before acting, make sure the recipients won’t be subject to the “kiddie tax,” and consider any gift and generation-skipping transfer (GST) tax consequences.

Plan ahead

Annual gifts are only one way to transfer wealth to your loved ones. There may be other effective tax and estate planning tools. Contact us before year end to discuss your options.

© 2019 Covenant CPA

When a married couple files a joint tax return, each spouse is “jointly and severally” liable for the full amount of tax on the couple’s combined income. Therefore, the IRS can come after either spouse to collect the entire tax — not just the part that’s attributed to one spouse or the other. This includes any tax deficiency that the IRS assesses after an audit, as well as any penalties and interest. (However, the civil fraud penalty can be imposed only on spouses who’ve actually committed fraud.)

Innocent spouses

In some cases, spouses are eligible for “innocent spouse relief.” This generally involves individuals who were unaware of a tax understatement that was attributable to the other spouse.

To qualify, you must show not only that you didn’t know about the understatement, but that there was nothing that should have made you suspicious. In addition, the circumstances must make it inequitable to hold you liable for the tax. This relief is available even if you’re still married and living with your spouse.

In addition, spouses may be able to limit liability for any tax deficiency on a joint return if they’re widowed, divorced, legally separated or have lived apart for at least one year.

Election to limit liability

If you make this election, the tax items that gave rise to the deficiency will be allocated between you and your spouse as if you’d filed separate returns. For example, you’d generally be liable for the tax on any unreported wage income only to the extent that you earned the wages.

The election won’t provide relief from your spouse’s tax items if the IRS proves that you knew about the items when you signed the return — unless you can show that you signed the return under duress. Also, the limitation on your liability is increased by the value of any assets that your spouse transferred to you in order to avoid the tax.

An “injured” spouse

In addition to innocent spouse relief, there’s also relief for “injured” spouses. What’s the difference? An injured spouse claim asks the IRS to allocate part of a joint refund to one spouse. In these cases, an injured spouse has all or part of a refund from a joint return applied against past-due federal tax, state tax, child or spousal support, or a federal nontax debt (such as a student loan) owed by the other spouse. If you’re an injured spouse, you may be entitled to recoup your share of the refund.

Whether, and to what extent, you can take advantage of the above relief depends on the facts of your situation. If you’re interested in trying to obtain relief, there’s paperwork that must be filed and deadlines that must be met. We can assist you with the details.

Also, keep “joint and several liability” in mind when filing future tax returns. Even if a joint return results in less tax, you may choose to file a separate return if you want to be certain of being responsible only for your own tax. Contact us with any questions or concerns.

© 2019 Covenant CPA

Portability allows a surviving spouse to apply a deceased spouse’s unused estate tax exemption amount toward his or her own transfers during life or at death. To secure these benefits, however, the deceased spouse’s executor must have made a portability election on a timely filed estate tax return. The return is due nine months after death, with a six-month extension option.

Unfortunately, estates that aren’t otherwise required to file a return (because they don’t meet the filing threshold) often miss the deadline. Several years ago, the IRS offered a simplified procedure for obtaining an extension, but it was available only through the end of 2014. After that, the only option was to request a private letter ruling from the IRS, a time-consuming, expensive process with no guarantee of success.

In 2017, however, the IRS made it easier (and cheaper) for estates to obtain an extension of time to file a portability election. For all deaths after 2010, IRS Revenue Procedure 2017-34 grants an automatic extension, provided:

  • The deceased was a U.S. citizen or resident,
  • The executor wasn’t otherwise required to file an estate tax return and didn’t file one by the deadline,
  • The executor files a complete and properly prepared estate tax return on Form 706 within two years of the date of death, and
  • The following language appears at the top of the return: “FILED PURSUANT TO REV. PROC. 2017-34 TO ELECT PORTABILITY UNDER §2010(c)(5)(A).”

If your spouse predeceases you and you’d benefit from portability, be sure that your spouse’s estate files a portability election by the applicable deadline. Contact us with any questions you have regarding portability at 205-345-9898.

© 2018 Covenant CPA