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How to give to family and friends — and avoid gift taxes

During the holidays, financial advisers field a lot of questions about the rules for giving financial gifts to charitable organizations, family members and friends. Here's what you need to know. (Thinkstock)

It’s giving season, and during this time of year, financial advisers field a lot of questions about the rules for giving financial gifts to charitable organizations, family members and friends. While it may seem counterintuitive, under federal tax law, it’s not the recipient but the gift giver who is subject to the gift tax.

That’s why before you give, you’ll want to reference this list of basic rules:

Annual per person limits apply

The simplest rule to keep in mind is the “federal annual gift tax exclusion.” This limit is $15,000 per person in 2018 and can change each year. So long as you keep the value of your gift below $15,000 per person, you are free to gift to an unlimited number of people and will not have to report it or worry about paying any gift tax. For married couples, each person can use their own exclusion amount, meaning parents can gift up to $30,000 per child without triggering the gift tax. Gifts between legally married spouses are exempt — you can give an unlimited amount to your spouse!

You may need to file a gift tax return if …

… you make a gift in excess of the annual limit. Then you’re required to file Form 709, which is the gift-and-generation-skipping-transfer tax return. This doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll owe any tax. In fact, it’s likely you won’t. This return tracks the extra gift amount and will be deducted from your “federal lifetime exemption,” which applies when your final estate is settled after your death. As an example, if you are married and make a one-time gift of $50,000 for a down payment on a home for your unmarried child, you’d be required to file a gift tax return and report the $20,000 excess gift ($50,000 – $30,000: the combined annual gift limit for a married couple).

Estate tax laws are intertwined with gift tax laws

The federal estate tax exclusion amount is the mechanism that connects gift tax laws with estate tax laws. The federal government uses this rule to limit the amount you can give away over your lifetime.

This rule prevents wealthy individuals from giving away all of their money before their death to circumvent estate tax. (The top estate tax rate is 40 percent.) With the passing of the new tax law, the exclusion amount was increased to $11.18 million per person (which translates to $22.36 million for a married couple). So long as you give away less than $11.18 million over your lifetime, you likely won’t owe any federal gift tax. While this is a high number now, it’s not permanent. In 2025, this limit will sunset back to $5.6 million per person. If your wealth currently exceeds $11.18 million, it may make sense to take advantage of these higher limits between now and the end of 2025. It’s also important to document gifts that exceed the annual per-person limits to correctly plan in the future, as the laws may change.

Smart timing can help avoid gift taxes

One of the simplest ways to avoid having to file a gift tax return is to spread gifts over multiple calendar years. In the prior example, rather than gifting your child’s home down payment of $50,000 in one year, you could gift the maximum of $30,000 at the end of this year, and then gift the remaining $20,000 in 2019. With just a little bit of advance planning, you can split larger gifts into multiple tax years, and avoid using any of your lifetime exemption or having to file a gift tax return.

There’s more than one way to gift

Remember that these gift tax rules apply no matter what kind of asset you’re giving. One way to manage the overall tax effectiveness of your gifting is to give stocks rather than cash. For example, gifting appreciated stock is helpful if the gift recipient is in a lower tax bracket than you. You could avoid having to pay capital gains on the gifted stock and may be able to completely eliminate gains tax if the recipient’s income puts them in the zero-percent capital gains tax bracket (i.e. if a single person has income below $38,600). Keep in mind that kiddie tax rules apply if you are gifting to a child. For these reasons, it’s a good idea to consult with a CPA if you’re thinking about gifting stocks, real estate or other non-cash financial assets. You may also want to consider non-cash gifts as donations to donor-advised funds.

Take advantage of exceptions

Another way to avoid gift tax payments or reporting is to make use of the special exemptions provided in the laws. In the case of gifting for college funding, special rules apply to 529 plan contributions. You may exceed the annual gift limit by applying the exception that allows you to gift up to $75,000 to a 529 plan in one year. ($15,000 x 5 years = $75,000 per person per child). Another exception allows you to gift an unlimited amount for either medical expenses or education tuition so long as you make payments directly to the institution providing the services.

As the size of your gifts and your overall wealth increases, it’s wise to keep an eye on both the federal lifetime exemption amount and the annual gifting per-person limits. Doing so will keep you aware of any reporting requirements while also preserving the integrity of your lifetime exemption and maximizing the amount of money you can gift to others throughout your lifetime.

Dawn Doebler, CPA, CFP®, CDFA® is a senior wealth adviser at The Colony Group. She is also one of the founders of Her Wealth®.


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