The Federal Estate Tax Lives On, But “Where, O death, is your sting?” (*)
January 10, 2018
When the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act was introduced on November 2, 2017, perhaps the single most important issue on the minds of many closely held business owners was the future of the estate tax: was it going to be repealed as had been promised? A closely related question – and perhaps of equal significance to these owners’ tax advisers – was whether an owner’s assets would receive a so-called “stepped-up” basis in the hands of those persons to whom the assets passed upon the owner’s death?
When the smoke cleared (only seven weeks later), the estate tax remained in place, but its reach was seriously limited, at least temporarily. Moreover, the stepped-up basis rule continued to benefit the beneficiaries of a decedent’s estate.
To better understand the change wrought by the Act – and to appreciate what it left intact – we begin with an overview of the federal transfer taxes.
The Estate and Gift Tax
The Code imposes a gift tax on certain lifetime transfers, an estate tax on certain transfers at death, and a generation-skipping transfer (“GST”) tax when such transfers are made to a “skip person.”
The Code imposes a tax on the transfer of the taxable estate of a decedent who is a citizen or resident of the U.S. The taxable estate is determined by deducting from the value of the decedent’s gross estate any deductions provided for in the Code. After applying tax rates to determine a tentative amount of estate tax, certain credits are subtracted to determine estate tax liability.
A decedent’s gross estate includes, to the extent provided for in other sections of the Code, the date-of-death value of all of a decedent’s property, real or personal, tangible or intangible, wherever situated. In the case of a business owner, the principal asset of his gross estate may be his interest in a closely held business. In general, the value of the property for this purpose is the fair market value of the property as of the date of the decedent’s death.
A decedent’s taxable estate is determined by subtracting from the value of his gross estate any deductions provided for in the Code. Among these deductions is one for certain transfers to a surviving spouse, the effect of which is to remove the assets transferred to the surviving spouse from the decedent’s estate tax base.
After accounting for any allowable deductions, a gross amount of estate tax is computed, using a top marginal tax rate of 40%.
In order to ensure that a decedent only gets one run up through the rate brackets for all lifetime gifts and transfers at death, his taxable estate is combined with the value of the “adjusted taxable gifts” made by the decedent during his life, before applying tax rates to determine a tentative total amount of tax. The portion of the tentative tax attributable to lifetime gifts is then subtracted from the total tentative tax to determine the gross estate tax.
The estate tax liability is then determined by subtracting any allowable credits from the gross estate tax. The most significant credit allowed for estate tax purposes is the unified credit.
The unified credit is available with respect to a taxpayer’s taxable transfers by gift and at death. The credit offsets the tax up to a specified cumulative amount of lifetime and testamentary transfers (the “exemption amount”). For 2017, the inflation-indexed exemption amount was set at $5.49 million; prior to the Act, it was set to increase to $5.6 million in 2018.
Any portion of an individual taxpayer’s exemption amount that is used during his lifetime to offset taxable gifts reduces the exemption amount that remains available at his death to offset the taxable value of his estate. In other words, the unified credit available at death is reduced by the amount of unified credit used to offset gift tax incurred on gifts made during the decedent’s life.
In the case of a married decedent, an election is available under which any exemption amount that was not used by the decedent may be used by the decedent’s surviving spouse (the so-called “portability election”) during her life or at her death.
The estate tax generally is due within nine months of a decedent’s death. However, in recognition of the illiquid nature of most closely held businesses, the Code generally allows the executor of a deceased business owner’s estate to elect to pay the estate tax attributable to an interest in a closely held business in up to ten installments. An estate is eligible for payment of the estate tax in installments if the value of the decedent’s interest in a closely held business exceeds 35 percent of the decedent’s adjusted gross estate (i.e., the gross estate less certain deductions).
If the election is made, the estate may defer payment of principal and pay only interest for the first five years, followed by up to 10 annual installments of principal and interest. This provision effectively extends the time for paying estate tax by 14 years from the original due date of the estate tax.
The Code imposes a tax for each calendar year on the transfer of property by gift during such year by any individual. The amount of taxable gifts for a calendar year is determined by subtracting from the total amount of gifts made during the year: (1) the gift tax annual exclusion; and (2) allowable deductions.
The gift tax for a taxable year is determined by: (1) computing a tentative tax on the combined amount of all taxable gifts for such year and all prior calendar years using the common gift tax and estate tax rate (up to 40 percent); (2) computing a tentative tax only on all prior-year gifts; (3) subtracting the tentative tax on prior-year gifts from the tentative tax computed for all years to arrive at the portion of the total tentative tax attributable to current-year gifts; and, finally, (4) subtracting the amount of unified credit not consumed by prior-year gifts.
The amount of a taxpayer’s taxable gifts for the year is determined by subtracting from the total amount of the taxpayer’s gifts for the year the gift tax annual exclusion amount and any available deductions.
Donors of lifetime gifts are provided an annual exclusion of $15,000 per donee in 2018 (indexed for inflation from the 1997 annual exclusion amount of $10,000) for gifts of “present interests” in property. Married couples can gift up to $30,000 per donee per year without consuming any of their unified credit.
The GST tax is a separate tax that can apply in addition to either the gift tax or the estate tax. The tax rate and exemption amount for GST tax purposes are set by reference to the estate tax rules. The GST tax is imposed using the highest estate tax rate (40%). Tax is imposed on cumulative generation-skipping transfers in excess of the generation-skipping transfer tax exemption amount in effect for the year of the transfer. The generation-skipping transfer tax exemption for a given year is equal to the estate tax exemption amount in effect for that year ($5.49 million in 2017).
Basis in property received at death
A bequest, or other transfer at death, of appreciated (or loss) property is not an income tax realization event for the transferor-decedent or his estate, but the Code nevertheless provides special rules for determining a recipient’s income tax basis in assets received from a decedent.
Property acquired from a decedent or his estate generally takes a stepped-up basis in the hands of the recipient. “Stepped-up basis” means that the basis of property acquired from a decedent’s estate generally is the fair market value on the date of the decedent’s death. Providing a fair market value basis eliminates the recognition of income on any appreciation in value of the property that occurred prior to the decedent’s death (by stepping-up its basis).
In the case of a closely held business, depending upon the nature of the business entity (for example, a partnership or a corporation) and of its assets, the income tax savings resulting from the basis step-up may be realized as reduced gain on the sale of the decedent’s interest in the business, or as a reduced income tax liability from the operation of the business (for example, in the form of increased depreciation or amortization deductions).
To the disappointment of many, the Act did not repeal the federal estate tax.
However, the Act greatly increased the federal estate tax, gift tax, and GST tax exemption amount – for decedents dying, and for gifts made, after December 31, 2017 and before January 1, 2026 – and it preserved portability.
The “basic exemption amount” was increased from $5 million (as of 2010) to $10 million; as indicated above, this amount is indexed for inflation occurring after 2011, and was set at $5.6 million for 2018 prior to the Act.
As a result of the Act, this exemption amount was doubled to $11.2 million per person beginning in 2018 – basically, $22.4 million per married couple – and will be adjusted annually for inflation through 2025.
To put this into perspective, over 109,000 estate tax returns were filed in 2001, of which approximately 50,000 were taxable. Compare this with 2016, when approximately 11,000 returns were filed, of which approximately 5,000 were taxable. The decline appears to be due primarily to the increase in the filing threshold (based on the exemption amount) from $675,000 in 2001 to $5.45 million in 2016. An increase from $5.49 million in 2017 to $11.2 million in 2018 should have a similar effect.
In addition, and notwithstanding the increased exemption amount, the Act retained the stepped-up basis rule for determining the income tax basis of assets acquired from a decedent. As a result, property acquired from a decedent’s estate generally will continue to take a stepped-up basis.
As stated immediately above, the owners of many closely held businesses will not be subject to the federal estate tax – at least not through 2025 – thanks to the greatly increased exemption amount and to continued portability.
Thus, a deceased owner’s taxable (not gross) estate in 2018 – even if we only account for conservative valuations of his business interests and for reasonable estate administration expenses – may be as great as $22.4 million (assuming portability) without incurring any federal estate tax.
Moreover, this amount ignores the benefits of fairly conservative gift planning including, for example, the long-term impact of regular annual exclusion gifting (and gift-splitting between spouses), the effect of transfers made for partial consideration (as in a QPRT), or for full and adequate consideration (as in zeroed-out GRATs and installment sales), as well as the benefit of properly-structured life insurance that is not includible in the decedent’s estate.
With these tools, otherwise taxable estates, that potentially may be much larger than the new exemption amount, may be brought within its coverage.
The increased exemption amount will also allow many owners to secure a basis step-up for their assets upon their death without incurring additional estate tax, by allowing these owners to retain assets.
Of course, some states, like New York, will continue to impose an estate tax on estates that will not be subject to the federal estate tax. In those cases, the higher federal exemption amount, coupled with the absence of a New York gift tax, provides an opportunity for many taxpayers to reduce their New York taxable estate without any federal estate or gift tax consequences, other than the loss of a basis step-up. The latter may be significant enough, however, that the taxpayer may decide to bear the 16% New York estate tax on his taxable estate rather than lose the income tax savings.
In light of the foregoing, taxpayers should, at the very least, review their existing estate plan and the documents that will implement it – “for man also knoweth not his time.”
For example, wills or revocable trusts that provide for a mandatory credit shelter or bypass trust may have to be revised, depending upon the expected size of the estate, lest the increased exemption amount defeat one’s testamentary plan.
A more flexible instrument may be warranted – perhaps one that relies upon a disclaimer by a surviving spouse – especially given the December 31, 2025 expiration date for the increased exemption amount, and the “scheduled” reversion in 2026 to the pre-2018 exemption level (albeit adjusted for inflation).
The buy-out provisions of shareholder, partnership and operating agreements should also be reviewed in light of what may be a reduced need for liquidity following the death of an owner. For example, should such a buy-out be mandatory?
Some taxpayers, with larger estates, may want to take advantage of the increased exemption amount before it expires in 2026 so as to remove assets, and the income and appreciation thereon, from their estates. This applies for both estate and GST tax purposes; a trust for the benefit of skip persons may be funded now using the temporarily increased GST exemption amount.
Of course, gifting comes at a cost: the loss of stepped-up basis upon the death of the taxpayer.
Conversely, some taxpayers may want to consider bringing certain appreciated assets (for example, assets that they may have previously gifted to a family member) back into their estates in order to attain the benefit of a basis step-up.
Those taxpayers who decide to take advantage of the increased exemption amount by making lifetime gifts should consider how they may best leverage it.
Some New York taxpayers – who may otherwise have to reduce their gross estates in order to reduce their NY estate tax burden – may want to consider changing their domicile so as to avoid the New York estate tax entirely while holding on to their assets (that would be sheltered by the increased exemption amount) and thereby securing the step-up in basis upon their passing.
There may also be other planning options to consider, some of which have been considered in earlier posts to this blog. For example, ESBTs may now include nonresident aliens as potential current beneficiaries without causing the S corporation to lose its “S” election.
As always, tax savings, estate planning, and gifting strategies have to be considered in light of what the taxpayer is comfortable giving up. In the case of a closely held business owner, any loss of control may be untenable, as may the reduction of cash flow that is attributable to his ownership interest.
Moreover, there are non-tax reasons for structuring the disposition of one’s estate that may far outweigh any tax savings that may result from a different disposition. Tails, dogs, wagging – you know the idiom.
* At least until 2026 – keep reading. With apologies to St. Paul. 1 Corinthians, 15:55.
 Pub. L. 115-97 (the “Act”); signed into law on December 22, 2017.
 The interest rate applicable to the amount of estate tax attributable to the taxable value of the closely held business in excess of $1 million (adjusted for inflation) is equal to 45 percent of the rate applicable to underpayments of tax (i.e., 45 percent of the Federal short-term rate plus three percentage points). This interest is not deductible for estate or income tax purposes.
 It also eliminates the tax benefit from any unrealized loss (by stepping-down its basis to fair market value).
 This provision expires after 2025. Assuming the provision survives beyond 2020 (the next presidential election), query whether the exemption amount will be scaled back. Has the proverbial cat been let out of the proverbial bag?
 Including individuals who had already exhausted their pre-2018 exemption amount.
 The NY estate tax exemption amount for 2018 is $5.25 million.
 In the case of a NYC decedent, for example, the tax savings to be considered would include the federal capital gains tax of 20%, the federal surtax on net investment income of 3.8%, the NY State income tax of 8.82%, and the NYC income tax of 3.876%. Of course, the likelihood of an asset’s being sold after death also has to be considered.
 Ecclesiastes, 9:12. As morbid as it may sound, planning for an elderly or ill taxpayer is different from planning for a younger or healthier individual – it is especially so now given the 2026 expiration of the increased exemption amount.
 Of course, there may be overriding business reasons for such a buy-out.
 If the exemption amount were to return to its pre-2018 levels in 2026, query how the IRS will account for any pre-2026 gifts that were covered by the increased exemption amount. The Act directs the IRS to issue regulations addressing this point.