2012 could be a great time to equalize family gifts

There’s a limit on how much money you can give away each year without paying gift tax. For 2012, for instance, you can give any person up to $13,000 without paying tax.

Many people make annual gifts to family members as part of their estate planning. This is a smart idea, but one problem is that over time it can result in unequal gifts to different parts of a family.

For instance, Edna has three children: Alan is single, Stella is married with one child, and Andy is married with four children. Each year Edna gives $13,000 to each of her children, their spouses, and her grandchildren.

But that means that Stella’s family gets three times the amount of gifts that Alan gets, and Andy’s family gets six times the amount of gifts that Alan gets. Over time, this has resulted in a very large disparity in gifts, and Edna would like to equalize matters a bit.

Of course, Edna could leave more to Alan and Stella in her will, but that might be awkward.

An option for Edna is to take advantage of the large lifetime gift tax exemption in effect through the end of 2012.

During 2012, a person who hasn’t made any prior taxable gifts can give away up to $5.12 million without paying any gift tax. A married couple can give away up to $10.24 million. (These amounts are scheduled to be reduced to $1 million and $2 million in 2013.)

This creates a wonderful opportunity to equalize family gifts that have become lopsided over time. But you have to act quickly, because under the current law, the opportunity evaporates after December 31 of this year.

You should know that the amount of any such gifts will reduce your estate’s tax exemption when you die. This is something that needs to be planned for, but it’s still usually much better to make gifts now, because any future appreciation in the value of the gifts will be kept out of your estate and won’t be subject to the estate tax

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