United States: Congress Passes Tax Bill, Bringing Only Temporary Estate Tax Relief

On December 20, 2017, both the House and Senate passed the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. The bill, which was previously passed by both chambers in different versions, was consolidated into a single bill by a conference committee to work out the differences between the chambers' respective bills. President Trump is expected to sign the bill into law in the coming days.

The long-awaited tax bill was heavily negotiated by Republican lawmakers over the past few weeks and contains significant changes to the individual income, corporate, business and estate tax regimes. The original bill that passed the House doubled the estate tax exemption from $5.6 million for individuals in 2018 ($11.2 million for married couples) to $11.2 million for individuals ($22.4 million for married couples), with a full repeal scheduled to take effect in 2025. The original Senate bill called for a doubling of the estate tax exemption without any full repeal. The final bill that passed both chambers doubles the exemption for years 2018 to 2025, followed by a drop back to current exemption levels in 2026. There will be no repeal of the estate tax and the exemption will continue to be indexed for inflation. The final change to revert back to current levels in 2026 was made to satisfy Senate parliamentary restrictions to ensure that the overall tax bill fell within budgetary limitations, in order to pass the bill by a simple majority.

The bill makes no change to the current law which allows a "step-up" in basis of assets held by an individual at death. The step-up in basis allows the beneficiaries of an estate to take each asset of the estate with a fair market value basis, rather than carrying the existing basis over, which ensures that there will be no income tax on capital gains accrued prior to an individual's death.

The estate and gift tax exemption is in effect a single exemption that can be used to offset the amount of gifts individuals make during life or upon death. There is a 40 percent tax on the amount of gifts or bequests made in excess of the exemption to beneficiaries other than charities or spouses. There is also an additional transfer tax on gifts or bequests made to grandchildren or more remote descendants, known as the generation-skipping transfer tax, with a separate exemption amount that matches that of the estate tax and a flat tax rate of 40 percent on transfers to such beneficiaries that exceed the exemption.

It is unclear how the estate and gift tax regime will be imposed beginning in 2026 when the exemption drops back to current levels. The bill calls for the Treasury Department to promulgate regulations to account for the difference between the increased exemption prior to 2026 and the reduced exemption beginning in 2026. If regulations are not imposed, theoretically an individual can make $11.2 million in gifts during life without being subject to gift tax, then upon death on January 1, 2026, with no assets, he or she would be subject to a multimillion dollar estate tax liability.

A likely outcome of new regulations will be to increase the exemption in 2026 by the amount of gifts made from the excess exemption during the period from 2018 to 2025, in order to ensure that there is no penalty for making gifts within the present exemption level. Such rules would incentivize the making of lifetime gifts during this period of at least the excess exemption amount (i.e., $5.6 million) for those with assets in excess of $11.2 million ($22.4 million for a married couple).

Should Democrats retake control of Congress and the White House in the coming years, there is a chance that the increased exemption could fall back to current levels even earlier than 2026.

No matter what regulations are ultimately imposed or who controls Congress and the White House in the future, the passage of this tax bill ensures that an estate tax will continue to exist, along with the need for thoughtful estate tax planning.

For Further Information

If you would like more information about this topic or your own unique situation, please contact any of the attorneys in the Wealth Planning Practice Group or the attorney in the firm with whom you are regularly in contact.

Disclaimer: This Alert has been prepared and published for informational purposes only and is not offered, nor should be construed, as legal advice. For more information, please see the firm's full disclaimer.

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