The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act was passed in 2017. The legislation increased the amount that is exempt from federal estate taxation. Between 2018 and 2025 the amount exempt from taxes is $11,180,000 for singles (more than $22 million for couples) and is adjusted for inflation each year after 2018. In 2026 the amount will fall back to $5,400,000. A majority of individuals will never exceed either amount; however, estate planning is more than avoiding estate taxes. Some decisions about property transfer can have other tax consequences. Changes in tax law can make old estate plans obsolete.
One important element of estate transfer is the “step up” in basis of real estate and other property that has gained value over time. An acre of ground purchased for $200 (original cost or basis) in 1984 could have a value of $4000 or more in 2019. If the property were sold it would be subject to capital gains taxes on the $3,800 of appreciated value. If the property is inherited, it passes without taxation and the basis is reset to the market value the day the owner died. This “stepped-up basis” is a key consideration when decisions are made about gifting property, setting up trusts, and developing other estate transfer plans. Example: suppose you gave your daughter that acre of land today. Upon selling the land, she would owe income tax on the $3800 capital gain; if she had received it as an inheritance after your death, the sale would involve little or no capital gain, saving her the tax bill.
Transfer of wealth through estate plans has also resulted in new requirements for reporting and keeping records on appreciated property (real estate, stocks, etc.) with a stepped up basis. New IRS rules define the property subject to appraisal, steps to ensure accuracy, and required reporting to the IRS and beneficiaries. Executors are responsible for date of death appraisals. Appraisals must be kept by the beneficiaries and used if the property is sold. It is wise to complete the date of death appraisal promptly; the IRS is more likely to question an appraisal that is completed a long time after the death of the owner. Details are included in IRS Form 706.
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