Q&A: To give or not to give can be a taxing question

Dear Liz: A good friend who is childless wishes to give his property to my daughter before his death. He has been an informal uncle for the whole 50 years of my daughter’s life, and we are, in effect, his family. However, I am concerned that the gift tax may be more than he bargained for. He is not tax-aware, and earns very little, so his tax knowledge is skimpy. He owns his property outright, however.

I know that someone can give as much as $14,000 without having to file a gift tax return and that there is a “’lifetime exemption” of more than $5 million. If his property is worth, say, $500,000, can he be tax free on a gift of that magnitude by, in effect, using his lifetime exemption?

Answer: Essentially, yes, but he may be creating a tax problem for your daughter.

Gift taxes are not something that most people need to worry about. At most, a gift worth more than $14,000 per recipient would require the giver to file a gift tax return. Gift taxes wouldn’t be owed until the amount given away in excess of that annual exemption limit exceeds the lifetime exemption limit of $5.49 million.

Capital gains taxes are another matter and should always be considered before making gifts. Here’s why.

Your friend has what’s known as a “tax basis” in this property. If he sold it, he typically would owe capital gains taxes on the difference between that basis — usually the purchase price plus the cost of any improvements — and the sale price, minus any selling costs. If he has owned the property a long time and it has appreciated significantly, that could be a big tax bill.

If he gives the property to your daughter while he’s alive, she would receive his tax basis as well. If she inherited the property instead, the tax basis would be updated to the property’s value at the time of your friend’s death. No capital gains taxes would be owed on the appreciation that took place during his lifetime.

There’s something else to consider. If your friend doesn’t make much money, he may not have the savings or insurance he would need to pay for long-term care. The property could be something he could sell or mortgage to cover those costs.

If he gives the property away, he could create problems for himself if he has no other resources. Medicaid is a government program that typically pays such costs for the indigent, but there’s a “look back” period that could delay his eligibility for coverage. The look-back rules impose a penalty for gifts or asset transfers made in the previous five years. He should consult an elder-law attorney before making such a move.

Q&A: When generosity becomes a taxing issue

Dear Liz: I recently came into some money, and I would like to share it with my family. I understand that there are annual tax caps on how much you can give to someone ($14,000 per person per year). However, does this limit apply only to cash and cash equivalents or also to any other gifts? For instance, can I pay off a sibling’s student loan for more than $14,000 without running afoul of the limits?

Answer: There’s no cap on how much money you can give to another person. But if you give more than $14,000 to any one person, you have to file a gift tax return (IRSForm 709). You won’t actually owe gift taxes until the amount you give in excess of that limit totals more than $5 million. (The precise limit this year is $5.49 million and it’s scheduled to rise by the rate of inflation in coming years.)

Paying most bills, including student loans, on behalf of another person counts as part of that $14,000 limit. The only exceptions are if you pay someone’s tuition, medical expenses and health insurance. To avoid the limit, you would have to pay the bills directly to the provider (such as the school, doctor, hospital, insurance company and so on). If you give the money to the person to pay these expenses, it counts as part of the $14,000 exemption.

Some people keep rigidly to the $14,000 limit to avoid having the excess gifts reduce their estate tax exemption. (Gifts over the $14,000 limit are added back into a person’s estate at death, and the prevailing estate tax exemption — which is also currently $5.49 million — is deducted from that enhanced total.)

If you aren’t a multimillionaire, though, this probably isn’t something you need to worry about. If you go over the $14,000 per person limit, you just have to deal with a little paperwork.

Q&A: The give and take of federal gift tax rules

Dear Liz: We are planning to build an addition to our home so that my mom can move in with us and will take out a loan to pay for it. Let’s say that we put down $50,000 and take out a loan for the remaining cost of $150,000. After the addition is built, my mom will sell her house and with the proceeds she will give us $200,000 to pay for the cost of the addition. Is this considered a gift? Or is it considered payment for a place to live (i.e. she gets something in return), and therefore it is not a gift?

Answer: What do you want it to be?

If you want it to be a gift, then it certainly can be. If your mother wanted to give you the money all at once, she would need to file a gift tax return because the amount exceeds the $14,000 per recipient annual exclusion. But she wouldn’t need to pay gift tax until the amount she gives away in excess of the annual exclusion reaches a certain limit (which is $5.49 million in 2017).

Gifts in excess of the annual exclusion also affect how much of a wealthy person’s estate can pass tax-free to heirs. If your mother is worth more than about $5 million, she should consult an estate planning attorney before making any gifts.

If she doesn’t want to bother with a gift tax return, she could give you and your spouse $14,000 each, or $28,000, per year until she’s given the $200,000.

If you or your mother prefer to make payments over time and treat the money as rent, you would need to declare the income. You could write off certain rent-related expenses, such as a portion of insurance premiums and repairs, that wouldn’t be deductible otherwise, plus you’d get another tax break from depreciating the portion of the property that’s considered a rental.

But that could trigger a big tax bill when you sell the home, so make sure you run this plan past a tax pro who can help you weigh the costs and benefits.

Q&A: How to avoid triggering gift taxes

Dear Liz: Is it possible to make student loan payments directly toward our son’s lender without them being considered a gift and thereby subject to the gift tax after a certain amount?

Answer: No. But gift taxes aren’t an issue for the vast majority of Americans. You and your spouse would have to give away more than $10 million for gift taxes to be triggered.

You don’t even have to file a gift tax return if the amounts you give are under certain annual limits. The annual gift exclusion in 2017 allows you to give away $14,000 per recipient without having to file a gift tax return, so the two of you could pay $28,000 of your child’s loans without informing the IRS.

Only the amounts above $14,000 count toward the gift tax, and gift tax is owed only when those excess gifts total more than a certain amount, which in 2017 was $5.49 million.

When gift taxes are an issue, there are some workarounds. In addition to the annual gift tax exclusion amounts, people can pay an unlimited amount of someone else’s medical expenses or tuition without triggering gift taxes — as long as the payments are made directly to providers. In other words, the tuition checks need to be made out to the college bursar, not to the child or to another creditor. Paying student loans isn’t included in that unlimited exemption.

Q&A: Gift tax returns

Dear Liz: You recently answered a question about gift taxes and mentioned gift tax returns. Who is supposed to report the gift, the one giving or the one receiving the money? It seems like the one receiving the gift should, but in the answer it seemed the one giving the gift was subject to taxes.

Answer: The giver would file the return. The gift tax rules require people to report any annual gift over $14,000 to any one person, although the givers don’t owe gift taxes until those aggregate amounts exceed a certain limit (currently $5.45 million). The gift tax rules are designed to keep wealthy people from circumventing estate tax laws by giving vast amounts to their heirs before they die.

Q&A: Tuition gifts and tax breaks

Dear Liz: You recently answered questions about tax breaks for college education expenses. We are contributing $20,000 to our grandson’s college education yearly. He is not our dependent. We are senior citizens with a gross income of about $110,000. Is there any deduction for this expenditure that we might qualify for?

Answer: Your grandson is a lucky young man. Since he’s not your dependent, though, you can’t take any of the available education tax credits or deductions.
The good news is that you don’t have to worry about filing gift tax returns. Each person is allowed to give any other person up to a certain limit each year without triggering the need to file such returns.

This amount, called the annual gift exclusion, is $14,000 this year. Together, you and your spouse could gift up to $30,000 to one person. You wouldn’t actually owe gift taxes until the amounts exceeding this annual exclusion totaled $10.86 million as a couple.

Even if you were giving more than $30,000, there would be a way to avoid filing gift tax returns, and that’s to pay the college directly. Amounts you pay directly to a college or to medical provider are exempt from the limits.

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Less than a week to go.

Triggering the Gift Tax

Dear Liz: In 2007, my parents signed over their house deed to my name. Does this trigger the gift tax? They never filled out a gift tax form. Is it too late? Dad has passed on but Mom is still with us. She has Alzheimer’s disease, and I have her power of attorney. Are there no taxes due because of the lifetime exclusion?

Answer: Yes, a gift tax return should have been filed, but no, the gift tax itself almost certainly wasn’t triggered. In 2007, each of your parents would have had to give away more than $1 million in their lifetimes before gift tax would be owed. The gift tax exemption limit has since been raised to more than $5 million.

A tax professional can help you file the overdue return. Then you should consult an attorney about what to do next.

If your parents’ intent was to avoid taxes by transferring the home to you, they probably made a mistake. By giving the house to you, they also gave their tax basis. That means that when you sell the house, you would have to pay capital gains taxes on the difference between the sale price and what they paid for it, perhaps many years ago. The capital gains would be decreased by any improvements made in the subsequent years and by selling costs, but you still could face a substantial tax bill.

If you’d inherited the home after their deaths, on the other hand, you would get a new tax basis that essentially makes those gains tax-free.
You could undo the gift by transferring the deed back to your mother and filing another gift tax return. (Again, no tax probably would be owed.) But that’s probably not something you’d want to do if your mother will qualify for Medicaid, the government program that pays nursing home expenses for the poor, said Howard Krooks, an attorney with Elder Law Associates in Boca Raton, Fla., and president of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys.

Medicaid looks back at the previous five years to see if the family transferred assets for less than fair-market value and delays eligibility if such transfers are found. Since you’re outside the five-year mark, you may want to leave things the way they are if Medicaid is in your mom’s future, Krooks said.

An elder law attorney can help you sort through the options. You can get referrals from the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys at http://www.naela.org.

Uncle Sam can help with education costs

Dear Liz: I have rental property, own my home outright, am contributing to a 401(k) and have a pension, so finances are not a big issue. I do have an adult son in law school and would like to know the most fiscally prudent way to pay for it. Are there limits on gifts, and can the money be tax deductible since it is an investment to increase his future earnings?

Answer: Interest on student loans is generally tax deductible for the person who takes out the loan if his or her income is below certain limits (the deduction begins to phase out at $50,000 adjusted gross income for single filers and $100,000 for joint filers), said Mark Luscombe, principal analyst for CCH Tax & Accounting North America.

Education tax credits also can help offset college costs. The American Opportunity Credit is limited to the first four years of college, but law school expenses could qualify for the Lifetime Learning Credit, Luscombe said. The credit starts to phase out at $53,000 of adjusted gross income for single filers and $107,000 for joint filers, he said.

If you don’t qualify for other credits and your son is under age 24, you may be able to deduct up to $4,000 in qualified education expenses if your income is below certain limits (modified adjusted gross income of $160,000 if married filing jointly or $80,000 if single), Luscombe said. You can find out the details in IRS Publication 970, Tax Benefits for Education.

Another potential tax benefit has to do with the gift tax. You can avoid the hassle of filing a gift tax return, or using up any portion of your gift tax exclusion, if you pay tuition or medical bills for someone else. You have to pay the provider directly — you can’t cut a check to the person receiving the services.

Normally, you’d have to file a gift tax return if you gave any recipient more than the gift tax exclusion limit, which is $14,000 in 2013. You wouldn’t be subject to an actual gift tax, however, until the sum of the contributions over that $14,000 limit exceeded your lifetime gift exemption. The gift exemption is currently $5.25 million, so the gift tax is an issue that few people face.

If you are that rich and generous, then you’ll probably want to discuss your situation with a qualified estate planning attorney to find the best ways to give.