2011 Changes in Tax Law

The recently enacted “Tax Relief, Unemployment Insurance Reauthorization and Job Creation Act of 2010” (the “2010 Tax Act”), signed by President Barack Obama on December 17, 2010, makes important changes to the taxation of estates and gifts, which will affect many grandparents. This Act significantly increases the prior exemptions for estates and gifts. It will affect many existing wills and estate plans, so it would be wise for grandparents to review their estate-planning documents with their attorneys to determine if changes are appropriate.

The 2010 Tax Act reinstates the federal estate tax at rates of 35 percent (as opposed to 45 percent under prior law) and provides for a federal exemption of $5 million for individuals and $10 million for a husband and wife for 2011 and 2012. It also keeps the tax rate at 35 percent for gifts made in 2010 through 2012. The lifetime gift-tax exemption amount is reunified with the $5 million estate-tax exemption, providing for a unified gift and estate tax exemption of $5 million for decedents in 2011 and 2012. This makes lifetime gifts much more attractive as an estate-planning vehicle.

Keep in mind that even though federal estate taxes have been eliminated on estates of less than $5 million (or $10 million, in the case of a surviving spouse), there may still be significant state estate taxes on estates of less than $5 million. New York State, for example, has not changed its $1 million exemption to conform to increases in the federal estate-tax exemption, and thus, a decedent with a $5 million estate who dies in New York will be subject to state estate tax of approximately $400,000, even though there is no federal estate tax.