While it may be better to give than to receive, as the adage contends, both givers and receivers should be happy with the new tax law. The annual amount you can give someone tax-free has been raised to $15,000, from $14,000 in 2017.
Exempting $15,000 annually from gift tax, over time, transfers a lot of wealth to those you care about during your lifetime, while avoiding the tender mercies of the tax man, and married couples can have double the fun.
Take the example of a husband and wife with three married children and six grandchildren. The husband can give $15,000 each to his married children and the same amount to their spouses, and also $15,000 to the half-dozen grandchildren - totaling $180,000 - and his wife can do the same for the same 12 beneficiaries. The grand total is $360,000 per year. No federal tax will be levied on these transfers of your wealth to family as well as friends.
In addition, you can give more than the annual exemption caps for college savings. The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) permits bunching five years of $15,000 annual gifts into one year, by plugging it into a 529 college savings plan for a child or grandchild. That's $75,000 in total. Assets in 529 savings plans grow tax-free, if used to pay qualified education expenses.
Gifts made during your lifetime reduce your exemption from tax on your estate. The TCJA more than doubled the estate tax exemption in 2018 from $5.5 million to $11.2 million for individuals, and from $11 million to $22.4 million for couples. All of these new levels will increase with inflation, though the formula annually adjusting inflation is less generous than before.
Lifetime gifts can be made directly or through trusts. With a trust, you place the gift of cash, securities, or other assets in an entity set up to make transfer of wealth after you die. The assets in the trust avoid probate court, and makes the transfer faster, less costly, less likely to be contested, and generally more sure-footed. Trusts can influence the values of your progeny by requiring the money you leave to be spent for religious, philosophical, or any variety of educational activities.
A trust also shields assets left to your heirs from lawsuits and business creditors. Should your grandchild get divorced, the trust money is shielded.
The friendlier tax treatment of transfers under the TCJA affects your estate plan and how your assets will be spent after you are gone, but it also may change your plan for gifting during your lifetime. Giving assets during your lifetime can be satisfying because you can witness your impact and influence on the future of your family.