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Estate Planning has Begun for Exemptions Expirations

The clock is ticking on the expiration, or sunset, of the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, which nearly doubled the lifetime estate and gift tax exemption from its previous levels.

The high lifetime estate and gift tax exemptions gave extremely wealthy Americans terrific tax breaks. In 2024, exemptions are currently at $13.61 million per person and $27.22 million for married couples.  However, the end of these levels means that taxpayers with wealth of a much lower magnitude will need to prepare, according to a recent article from Forbes, “Wealthy Families: Consider These Planning Ideas Before ‘The Sunset.’”

Some state estate taxes are tied to federal estate taxes, so people of modest wealth should check with their estate planning attorney to be sure they are properly situated before the law changes. In addition, several strategies can be considered and applied to many tax brackets.

Charitable Giving. Instead of making a gift through a trust, you might consider donating cash to a charity. Under the 2017 law, the deductions for direct cash contributions jumped from 50% of AGI to 60%, including gifts to Donor-Advised Funds (DAFs). When the exemptions end, the limit will return to 50%, so if you are charitably inclined, making a cash gift now is a good idea.

Strategic Gifting. Assets depressed in value may have tax value as gifts. You might gift them to a beneficiary or a trust, so their appreciation may occur after they have been removed from your taxable estate. This creates two wins: the depressed assets will use less of your lifetime estate and gift tax exemption, and their future growth and possible increase in value will take place outside of the taxable estate.

“Substitution Powers” Assets. If you have transferred assets to grantor trusts with retained “substitution powers,” consider moving low-basis assets out of trusts at a lower current value in exchange for higher-basis assets of equivalent value. This strategy could lessen capital gains on the lower-basis assets by returning them to the taxable estate and benefit from the step-up in basis at death. Talk with your estate planning attorney about how this might work for you.

Business Owner Planning. The Qualified Business Income (QBI) tax deduction created by the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act allows select pass-through entities, like sole proprietorships, partnerships, and S-corp owners, to deduct as much as 20% of business income. There are income thresholds and other limits to consider. However, this tax deduction ends on December 31, 2025. Accelerating income now could be of great value for business owners who qualify.

Basic Income Tax Planning. Income tax brackets will return to their levels before the TCJA law was enacted. The top bracket may increase to 39.6%, so you may not want to defer income. Middle tax brackets are also expected to expand.

Alternative Minimum Tax and Incentive Stock Options. The exemption amount for the AMT increased under the TCJ. However, this will also return to previous levels, making more taxpayers vulnerable to the AMT. One workaround is to exercise incentive stock options, which aren’t considered income for regular tax purposes but are considered income for AMT taxes. The AMT could be due in the year of exercise. If you can exercise before 2026, it could be a tax-savvy move.

Estate Planning Strategies. Planning needs to be flexible, since there is no way to know if Congress will or won’t act to renew TCJA. It may seem like there’s time to make any necessary changes. However, it takes time to create and execute a plan, which is why wealthy families are acting now to protect their assets.

Reference: Forbes (March 6, 2024) “Wealthy Families: Consider These Planning Ideas Before ‘The Sunset’”