Q&A: Understanding the gift tax

Dear Liz: I am 83 and have always been employed and a regular saver. I find myself in the unusual position of having amassed a considerable estate and, barring a financial or medical catastrophe, probably having more assets than I will use in my lifetime. Of course these assets will pass to my wife or other heirs on my death, but I would like to help them now. I am considering passing on monies to my sons and grandchildren. I find it hard to believe, but is it correct that I can give up to a total of $15,000 per year ($30,000 for a husband and wife) to my children and grandchildren in a given calendar year without federal or state tax implications for either party? Also, does the recipient need to be a close relative for this transaction to take place without creating a tax liability for either entity?

Answer: Right now you can give away millions of dollars without owing gift taxes. Gifts are tax-free to the recipient, and there’s no requirement that they be a relative.

The annual gift exemption limit of $15,000 is how much you can give away per recipient without having to file a gift tax return. You and your wife together could give $30,000 to as many people as you wanted without having to file such a return. If you have two married sons who have three children each, you and your wife could give each family of five $150,000 or a total of $300,000 without having to file a gift tax return.

Gift taxes aren’t due until the amount you give away over the annual limit exceeds the lifetime gift and estate exemption limit, which currently is $11.7 million per person.

Given your age and affluence, you should be working with an experienced estate planning attorney to make sure your assets go where you want after your death. The attorney can discuss smart gifting strategies for your individual circumstances.

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