(Dow Jones) With the estate tax expected to roar back in 2011, the practice of making big taxable gifts is gaining appeal right now.
Big gifts to friends and family slipped out of vogue as the estate tax was steadily pared over the last decade by laws passed in 2001. Increases in the exemption-that is, the dollar value at which an estate qualifies to be taxed-made the gifts unnecessary. The tax rate also shrank, and this year is at zero.
Both gift and estate taxes are set to return to higher levels next year, and Congress appears unlikely to stop that. Smaller estates also will be hit.
John J. Scroggin, an attorney in Roswell, Ga., said he has talked with at least three dozen clients about gifting, including one man with $300 million who is trying to decide how much he wants to give away. The more cash he can part with to pay gift taxes, the more he can give.
Low tax rates, slumping asset values and pressure by Congress to limit tax-reducing discounts that people can take on businesses have created a kind of perfect storm for gifting this year, he says.
For people with family businesses, especially, "you couldn't ask for a better time to gift," he says.
The idea is to lay the groundwork for a big gift now but not actually make it until closer to year end. Waiting makes sense because there is still uncertainty about how Congress will act.
M. Holly Isdale, managing director at Bessemer Trust Co., said that "come December, there may be a rush to do something in 2010 even if we are still in limbo, and take their chances on subsequent reform legislation."
Right now, anyone can make unlimited gifts to individuals of up to $13,000 each year without owing tax on them. Any amount above that is taxed. There is a $1 million lifetime gift tax exemption.
For 2010, the gift tax rate is 35%. Differences between the estate and gift tax rules mean that if the donor survives the gift by three years, the effective gift tax rate is effectively only 26%. Next year, unless Congress acts, the top tax rate on gifts and bequests over $1.2 million will be 55% with an additional 5% surtax on transfers from $10 million to $17.1 million.