When are you required to file a gift tax return?

Are you planning to give sizeable gifts to family members? Due to generous provisions in the tax code, you may not owe any federal gift tax, but you still might be required to a file a gift tax return.

Here’s a quick review of the basic rules. Despite a common misconception, gift tax is paid by the gift giver, or “donor,” not the recipient, or “donee.” This applies to gifts of cash, property, and other interests. For 2013 and thereafter, the top gift tax rate is permanently set at 40%, a slight increase from 35% in 2012. However, you may be able to avoid gift tax liability due to two key tax breaks.

  • Annual gift tax exclusion. Under the exclusion, annual gifts to a donee valued up to $14,000 in 2014 (the same as in 2013) are completely exempt from gift tax. Note that the exclusion is available for gifts to as many recipients as you choose.
  • Lifetime gift tax exclusion. In addition to any amount covered by the annual gift tax exclusion, you can benefit from a lifetime gift tax exemption of $5 million, inflation-indexed to $5.34 million in 2014. However, this exemption is unified with the federal estate tax exemption, so amounts used for gifts will erode the tax shelter available for bequests from your estate.

Generally, you don’t have to file a gift tax return, Form 709, for gifts covered by the annual exclusion, but you must file this form if you tap into the lifetime exemption amount. Also, when you make a “split gift” with your spouse, the annual exclusion amount is doubled to $28,000 per donee, but a gift tax return is required even if you don’t owe any tax. Furthermore, if you give a gift of a “future interest,” such as a transfer of assets to a trust, a gift tax return must be filed in any event.

In some cases, you might file a gift tax return when you’re not legally required to. This starts the statute of limitations running on the time the IRS will have to challenge the valuation of the gift. It also discloses the gift for other purposes.

The deadline for filing federal gift tax returns is the same as the one for income tax returns. Thus, if you gave more than $14,000 to a donee in 2013, you have until April 15, 2014, to file the return, but you can apply for an automatic six-month filing extension. Caution: This extension is for filing only and not payment of any gift tax that is owed.

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