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Davidow, Davidow, Siegel & Stern, LLP
Long Island's Elder Law, Special Needs & Estate Planning Firm

Saturday, May 15, 2004

Reviewing the Tax Relief Act of 2001

On May 26th Congress approved The Economic Growth and Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2001, the biggest tax cut in a generation. The bill, which provides for a tax cut of $1.35 trillion in the next decade, passed the House by a vote of 240 to 154, and passed the Senate by a vote of 58 to 33.

The new legislation makes 441 tax-law changes, according to the Wall Street Journaland will require CCH Inc. (a leading publisher of tax information) "to update more than 14,368 pages in its 23 core federal tax...looseleaf materials." This issue of THE ADVANTAGE and succeeding issues will focus on and highlight some of the changes in the Estate and Gift Tax Laws and the Generation Skipping Transfer (GST) Tax Law.

Beginning in 2002 and through 2009, the Estate and Gift Tax rates will be reduced. At the same time, the Unified Credit Exemption amount for Estate Tax purposes and the GST Tax Exemption amount will be significantly increased. In 2002, the Unified Credit Exemption amount for lifetime gifts will be increased to $1 million and will remain at that level. The Estate Tax and GST Tax are repealed in 2010, but only for one year. In that same year, assets would begin to be inherited at their purchase price rather than market value (carryover basis), so heirs could inherit old capital gains-tax liabilities - making bookkeeping potentially burdensome.

Commentators have noted some curiosities in this legislation. For instance, according to an Op-Ed piece humorously entitled Bad Heir Day in The New York Times (May 30th), the postponing of the repeal of the Estate Tax until 2010 left the "books insufficiently cooked," so Congress- added a 'sunset' clause, officially causing the whole bill to expire, and tax rates to bounce back to 2000 levels, at the beginning of 2011. So in the law as now written, heirs to great wealth face the following situation: If your ailing mother passes away on Dec. 30, 2010, you inherit her estate tax-free. But if she makes it to Jan. 1, 2011, half the estate will be taxed away. That creates some interesting incentives. Maybe they should have called it the Throw Momma From the Train Act of 2001.

Contrary to the somewhat cynical views espoused by some of these critics, it will not be necessary for our clients or their heirs to resort to criminal activity in order to benefit greatly from the new tax laws. With proper estate planning, the reduction in Estate and Gift Tax rates and the dramatic increases in the Unified Credit Exemption will allow much greater wealth to pass from one generation to the next, with far less tax erosion than was the case under prior law. More detials of the tax legislation, and some resulting planning opportunities, will be the subjects of ensuing articles.

Monday, May 3, 2004

Reviewing the Tax Relief Act of 2001 - Part 2

As we have noted in the previous newsletter, under the 2001 Tax Act (that President Bush has now signed into law), the amount exempt from estate taxes and the rate of tax on larger sums are slowly reduced beginning next year until 2010. At that time the estate tax (but not the gift tax) is repealed for one year. The new law then "sunsets", meaning the law existing prior to the 2001 Act will be reinstated effective January 1, 2011. Thus, (a) in 2009 only estates in excess of $3.5 million will be subject to estate tax, at a top federal rate of 45%; (b) in 2010 there will be no estate tax: and (c) in 2011 we revert to estate tax on estates exceeding $1 million, at a top rate of 55%.

According to an article in The New York Times (June 14, 2001), these: roller-coaster changes can turn an estate plan drafted under the old law to eliminate estate taxes into a financial disaster. ...Six prominent estate tax lawyers agreed in interviews [June 13th] that the repeal would probably not take place, but they all said individuals must have wills that take into account a range of possibilities, including all of the changes planned over the next 10 years, the possibility of permanent repeal and the prospect that repeal will never take place. ...Those who...have a will and estate plan drafted under the old laws need to ...have it reviewed and in many cases rewritten. ...Without revisions, these experts said yesterday, widows may be left with far less than they expected, children and grandchildren may be stuck with huge tax bills that could have been avoided and litigation over who receives tax-favored assets may erupt, even in families whose members have worked together to build and preserve their wealth.

The above-quoted article may be somewhat alarmist, particularly in light of some interesting statistics the same newspaper published in a different article on April 8th this year: while 17% of Americans in a recent Gallup survey think they will owe estate taxes, only a much smaller perentage in fact do. "And nearly half the estate tax is paid by the 3000 or so people who each year leave taxable estates of moer than $5 million." While The New York Times doesn't specifically say so, the negative implication of this latter statistic is that somewhat more than half the estate tax is paid by people who leave less than $5 million (though we don't have statistics to verify that inference).

We believe that clients are advised to continue to make "annual exclusion" gifts and take other steps to reduce estate tax where there is risk that they may die before repeal with an estate larger than $1 million. We also agree with the experts quoted by The Times above that it is sensible for clients to have their wills and other estate planning documents reviewed. Many clients may benefit from having their "optimum marital deduction" will updated to avoid the anomaly of having all or most of their estate diverted to the "Bypass" trust (a/k/a "Credit Shelter" trust). Further, since the gift tax exemption increases to $1 million per person in 2002, leveraged gifts via GRATs and Family Limited Partnerships will take on added importance in the "reform" period.