In tax matters, time usually isn’t on your side. This year, that is particularly true. Dramatic changes to the federal tax code are scheduled to come into effect on Jan. 1, which is now only a few weeks away.
Most business owners are aware of scheduled increases in dividend and capital gains rates and are taking steps such as selling or recapitalizing their businesses or distributing excess cash to mitigate the impact of higher taxes. Owners also need to be keenly aware of scheduled changes in gift and estate tax rates and exemptions and take action now. Currently, we have the highest gift and estate tax exemption levels in history, at $5.12 million per individual or $10.24 million for a married couple. On Jan. 1st, that level is set to go back to $1 million per individual. Plus, gift and estate taxes are currently 35 percent, but are slated to move to 55 percent next year.
Business owners need to consider using these exemptions to gift all or part of their business interests to their heirs. Gifting business interests when an owner is still alive can have a dramatic effect on a family’s wealth, as a business is generally an appreciating asset that can grow substantially over an owner’s lifetime. Once transferred to a trust, any appreciation of the business is not subject to gift or estate tax. Plus, asset discounts may apply to gifts of minority interests, which can lower the value of the gift for tax purposes. This can increase the gift’s benefit as the asset appreciates from a discounted level.
Executing a qualifying transfer that takes full advantage of asset discounts normally requires many weeks during which an appraiser determines the value of the business, applying appropriate discounts. Plus, time with financial advisors and attorneys is needed to draft trust documents. Because of the rush to use exemptions before year end, these professionals have a line out the door of clients needing help.
Even if you have put off this decision until now but want to take advantage of the exemption levels, it can be done. Trusts can be funded with one asset and later replaced with another. Cash is the easiest asset to fund a trust, since it doesn’t need to be valued. But not every business owner has five or ten million dollars in cash, so today’s rock-bottom interest rates can provide for very cheap money to fund a trust in the short term. We see clients borrowing against investment portfolios or business assets at rates often around 2 percent. And that cheap funding can buy you the time to get your business assets transferred under less time pressure.
But it’s critical to act now to capture the benefits of the current advantageous tax system. We may never again see tax exemptions this high, or opportunities for wealth generation so great.
Carlos A. Batlle, based in Miami, heads up J.P. Morgan’s Wealth Advisory Group in Florida