WMUR’s recent article, “Money Matters: Portability and estates,” explains that each taxpayer is typically permitted what is called an applicable exclusion amount. This is the amount of assets that, at your death, you can bequeath to others tax-free for estate tax purposes. Prior to the law change, spouses couldn’t share their exclusions. However, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act increased this exclusion significantly. In 2019, the exclusion is $11.4 million per person.
The portion that’s not used by the deceased spouse can be transferred to the surviving spouse. The exclusion is indexed for inflation. However, this exemption level is only in effect until 2025. It will then again lower, probably to around half of its current level.
Before this tax law change, the most frequent way to maximize the exclusion was to set up a trust for each spouse—sometimes known an A/B trust. When the first spouse passes away, an amount equal to the exclusion would go to the B trust (also called a credit-shelter bypass trust).
The assets in this trust would be outside the surviving spouse’s estate and, because the exclusion was applied, were not subject to estate taxes. Anything remaining in the estate of the first to die, would be given to the survivor or could be placed in another trust. This trust is often called an A trust (or marital trust). Transfers to spouses aren’t usually subject to estate tax, so assets passing to the A marital trust would have no estate tax liability. At the surviving spouse’s death, his exclusion would be applied to the assets in the A trust. That way, both spouses would get the benefit of their exclusion. However, this changed with the new tax law. The first spouse to die now uses the exclusion against assets in his estate. Any unused exclusion amounts can then be used by the surviving spouse with their own, at her death.
This would appear to simplify estate planning, for some, the use of two separate trusts will no longer be needed. However, remember these thoughts: (i) the unused applicable exclusion amount from an earlier marriage usually isn’t available, and you can use the amounts only from your last deceased spouse in your estate planning; (ii) these unused exclusion amounts aren’t indexed for inflation, so the property your spouse receives at your death may increase in value in the future, and its value could ultimately be greater than the unused exclusion; and (iii) to use portability, an estate tax return must be filed, so the estate executor must make an election to do so, by filing a return—even if the estate wouldn’t usually be required to do so.
Because of the tax law changes, estate documents drafted before 2010 may not accurately reflect your desires, because portability and the increase in the exclusion amount can have an effect. Review the changes with your estate planning attorney.
Reference: WMUR (November 21, 2019) “Money Matters: Portability and estates”