Estate Tax: The Baucus Proposal

Estate Tax: The Baucus Proposal

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) recently announced proposed legislation that would amend the tax code. Among other provisions, the bill, known as “The Taxpayer Certainty and Relief Act of 2009,” (S. 722) would implement some much-discussed and anticipated changes to the federal gift and estate tax law.

The last major change to the federal gift and estate tax law was the Economic Growth and Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2001. A basic summary of the current law and the changes proposed by Senator Baucus, as provided by the AALU, is as follows:

Under current law, U.S. citizens and residents must pay taxes on transfers of property both during life and at death. These taxes are due under three separate tax systems: the estate tax, the generation skipping transfer tax, and the gift tax. Currently, the top tax rate for all three taxes is 45%. Both the estate and generation-skipping transfer taxes currently have a $3.5 million exemption for individuals ($7 million for couples). The gift tax has an exemption of $1 million ($2 million for couples). For the 2010 tax year, the estate and generation skipping transfer taxes are repealed. In the same year, the gift tax rate will fall to 35%. In 2011, the estate, generation skipping transfer, and gift taxes are scheduled to revert back to pre-2001 levels, with an exemption of $1 million, a 55% rate, and a 5% surtax on large estates.

The proposal would make permanent the 2009 estate, gift, and generation skipping transfer tax laws going forward and index the exemption amount. The proposal would also reunify the estate and gift taxes. In addition, the proposal would allow portability of exemption for spouses. Finally, the proposal would increase the amount available under the special use valuation revaluation to equal the estate tax exemption. (AALU Washington Report, 3/26/2009)

In other words, as proposed, there would be no estate tax repeal for 2010. Instead, the estate tax exemption would remain at $3.5 million. A maximum tax rate of 45% would also continue into 2010. In addition, beginning in 2011, the exemption would be pegged to inflation. So, for example, a 3% CPI increase in 2010 would result in a $3,610,000 exemption for 2011.

Under current law, the estate tax exemption for 2009 is $3.5 million, but the gift tax exemption is still only $1 million. Gifts that do not qualify for the annual gift tax exclusion use the lifetime gift tax exemption. The proposed legislation would reunify gift and estate tax by increasing the gift tax exemption to the same level as the estate tax.

The proposed portability of exemption for spouses would preserve the exemption of the first spouse to die, even where the exemption amount was left outright to the surviving spouse. Under current law, couples who together have assets over $3.5 million would have to create a trust (such as a credit shelter trust) to preserve the exemption following the first spouse’s death. Under the proposed legislation, however, the estate of the first spouse to die can elect on the estate tax return to preserve any unused portion of the exemption.

A few more points about the portability proposal:

If the proposed bill becomes law, it seems that it would make sense to file a federal estate tax return even for small estates, since by doing so an unused spousal exemption can be preserved.

The proposed bill allows a surviving spouse to use the aggregate unused exemptions of all marriages, but unused exemptions cannot exceed the basic exclusion amount applicable at the time the surviving spouse dies. This prevents the accumulation of unused spousal exemptions from multiple marriages.

As Greg Herman-Giddens of the North Carolina Estate Planning Blog and others have pointed out, the proposal wouldn’t make credit shelter trusts a thing of the past, since a credit shelter trust also protects the growth of the trust assets from being taxed in the survivor’s estate. A credit shelter trust can also be used to protect assets from creditors and future spouses.

Beyond that, the portability proposal raises a whole new set of potential issues, especially with regard to estate planning for a surviving spouse in a second or third marriage whose estate can potentially benefit from the unused exemption of a previous deceased spouse.

The Baucus proposal is currently in the Senate Finance Committee. To become law, it would still have to survive the committee, pass votes in both houses of Congress and be signed by the President.

Written by