By: Steven D. Hamilton, Principal, Steven D. Hamilton, CPA

November 05, 2015 6:29 pm EST

Let’s talk a little federal estate and gift tax.

It is unlikely that you or I will ever be subject to the federal estate tax, as the filing exemption is $5,430,000 for decedents passing away in 2015. If I was approaching that level of net worth, I would reduce my practice to part-time and begin spending my kid’s inheritance.

Let’s say that you and I are very successful and will be subject to the federal estate tax. What should we know about it?

The first thing is the $5,430,000 exemption we mentioned. If you are married, your spouse receives the same exemption amount, resulting in almost $11 million that you and your spouse can accumulate before there is any federal tax.

The second thing is that the federal estate tax is unified with the federal gift tax. That means that – at death - you have to add all your reportable lifetime gifts to your net worth (at death) to determine whether an estate return is required. As an easy example, say that you gift $5,400,000 over your lifetime, and you pass away single and with a net worth of $1 million.

  • If you just looked at the $ 1 million, you would say you have no need to file. That would be incorrect, however.
  • You have to add your lifetime gifts and your net worth at death. In this example, that would be $6,400,000 ($5,400,000 plus $1,000,000). Your estate would have to file a federal estate tax return.

Q: How would the IRS know about your lifetime gifts?

A: Because you are required to file a gift tax return if you make a gift large enough to be considered “reportable.”

Q: What is large enough?

A: Right now, that would be more than $14,000 per person. If you gifted $20,000 to your best friend, for example, you would have a reportable gift.

Q: Does that mean I have a gift tax?

A: Nah. It just means that you start using up some of the $5,430,000 lifetime exemption.

Q: Does that mean that gifts under $14,000 can be ignored?

A: Not quite. It depends on the gift.

Q: Do you tax people take a course on hedging your answers?

A: Hey, that’s not…, well …. yes.

Many advisors will separate a straightforward gift (like a check for $20,000) from something not so straightforward (like an interest in a limited partnership) valued at $20,000.

The reason has to do with discounts. For example, let’s say I put $2 million in a limited partnership. I then give 100 people a 1% interest in the partnership. Would you pay $20,000 for a 1% interest?

Let me add one more thing: any distribution of money would require a majority vote. Therefore, if you wanted to take money out, you would have to get the approval of enough other partners that they – combined with your 1% - represented at least 51%.

Would you pay $20,000 for that?

I wouldn’t.  Life would be easier to simply stash the money in a mutual fund. I could then access it without having to round up 50 other people and obtain their vote. The only way I would even think about it would require a discount. A big discount.

That discount is referred to as a minority discount.

Let’s go a different direction: what if you just sold that interest instead of rounding-up 50 other partners?

Then the buyer would have to round-up 50 other partners. If I were the buyer, I would not pay you full price for that thing. Again, mutual fund = easier. You are going to have to offer a discount.

That discount is referred to as a liquidity discount.

Normal practice is to claim both control and liquidity discounts when gifting non-straightforward assets such as limited partnership interests or stock in the family company.

Let’s use a 15% minority discount, a 15% liquidity discount and a gift before any discount of $20,000. The gift after the discount would be $14,000 ($20,000 * (15% + 15%)). No gift tax return is required unless the gift is more than $14,000, right?

Well, yes, but consider the calculus in getting to that $14,000. If the IRS disagreed, perhaps by arguing that the discounts should have been 10% +10%, then the gift would have been more than $14,000 and should have been reported.

Q: This is getting complicated. Why not skip a return altogether unless the gift is clearly more than $14,000?

A: Why? Because if you prepare the return correctly, there is a statute of limitations on the gift. If you file a return and describe that gift in considerable detail, the IRS has 3 years to audit the gift tax return. If the 3 years pass, that gift – and that discounted value – is locked in. The IRS cannot touch it.

Do not report the gift, or do not report it in sufficient detail, and there is NO statute of limitations.

Q: If I am dead, who cares?

A: Let’s return to the estate tax return. The gift is being added-back to your estate. Without the statute of limitations, the IRS can reopen the gift and revalue it, even if the gift was made a decade or two earlier. That is what NO statute of limitations means.

Q: Is this a bogeyman story told just to frighten the children?

A: Let’s take a look at Office of Chief Counsel Memorandum 20152201F.

NOTE: This type of document is internal to the IRS. A revenue agent is examining a return and has a question. The question is technical enough to make it to the National Office. An IRS attorney there responds to the agent’s question.

The donor (now deceased) made two gifts to his daughter. There were some problems with the gift tax return, however:

  1. The taxpayer did not give the legal names of the partnerships.
  2. The taxpayer gave an incorrect identification number for one partnership.
  3. The taxpayer gifted partnership interests, requiring a valuation. The taxpayer got an appraisal on the land, but did not get a valuation on the partnership containing the land.
  4. Failure to get a valuation on the partnership also meant the taxpayer failed to document any discounts claimed on the partnership interest.

What was the IRS conclusion?

"The Service may assess gift tax based upon those transfers at any time.”

The IRS concluded there was no statute of limitations. No surprise there. Granted, if there is enough money involved the estate has no choice but to pursue the matter. It however would have been easier – and a lot cheaper - to prepare the gift tax return correctly to start with.

Q: What is my takeaway from all this?

A: If you are gifting anything other than cash or publicly-traded stock, play it safe and file a gift tax return. Ignore the $14,000 limit.

The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author(s). Core Compass’s Terms Of Use applies.

About the author

Steven D. Hamilton is a career CPA, with extensive experience involving all aspects of tax practice, including sophisticated income tax planning and handling of tax controversy matters for closely-held businesses and high-income individuals.

Federal estate taxFederal estate tax exclusiongift taxgift tax exclusionestate taxesvaluation discount
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