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Spreading gifts throughout your lifetime is a great
strategy to help reduce estate taxes. Just be sure to
leave yourself enough to live on.

Making payments directly to medical and educational
providers on behalf of loved ones and giving away up
​to $14,000 per recipient per year gift-tax free are good options for minimizing taxes.

Any exemption you use for gifting will reduce the amount you can use for the estate tax.

As a general rule, it's better to give away money to your loved ones during your lifetime than to wait until after you pass away. There are numerous ways to give money gift-tax free while you're alive—and even if your gift is taxable, at least the recipient will be able to enjoy the gift's full value while you pay the taxes on it. In contrast, if your estate is subject to the estate tax, those taxes will come directly out of what your loved ones would otherwise inherit.

Picture four quarters on the table in front of you. If you were to die with all four quarters and were in the 50% estate tax bracket (the current top rate is 40%, so 50% is not unimaginable), your heirs would be left with two quarters and the federal government would get the other two. That's the estate tax in action.

Now imagine a different scenario. You start with four quarters and move two of those quarters, representing a lifetime gift to your loved ones, aside. Now you take one quarter and move it to the other side of the table as the gift tax you would owe.1 Your beneficiaries would have as much as they did in the first scenario, and you still have a quarter left!

Gifting provides a couple of added bonuses. Any future appreciation on the gift is in the hands of the beneficiary and outside your estate. Plus, you get to participate in the enjoyment of the gift while you're still around.

Below are the rate and exemption levels for gift and estate taxes in 2015:

Estate tax Gift tax
Top rate Exemption Top rate Exemption
40% $5,430,000 per person 


How the gift tax works

Currently, you can give up to $14,000 each to any number of persons in a single year without incurring a taxable gift ($28,000 for spouses "splitting" gifts). The lucky recipient of the gift typically owes no taxes and doesn't have to report the gift unless it comes from a foreign source.

You can also make unlimited payments directly to medical providers or educational institutions on behalf of others for qualified expenses without incurring a taxable gift.

However, if your gift exceeds $14,000 to any person during the course of the year, you have to report the taxable gift on a Gift Tax Return, IRS Form 709. Spouses splitting gifts must always file Form 709, even when no taxable gift is incurred.

For taxable gifts, each donor has an aggregate lifetime exemption before any out-of-pocket gift tax is due. In other words, under current law you can give away up to $5.43  million during your lifetime—over and above the annual $14,000 exclusion and any payments you make directly to educational or medical providers on someone else's behalf—and still avoid gift tax.

The gift tax return is due on April 15th following the year in which the gift is made.

There's one big caveat here. Whatever exemption you use for gifting will reduce the amount you can use for the estate tax—the $5.43 million exemption applies to gift and estate taxes combined. (This is what the IRS refers to as a "unified credit.") That said, surviving spouses may claim any unused exemption from the deceased spouse.

Example 1: You're unmarried and give away $3 million (over the $14,000 per person annual exclusion) during your lifetime. After you die, $2.43 million of your estate is still exempted from the estate tax.2

Example 2: Your spouse gives away $4 million and you give away $1 million (over the $14,000 per person annual exclusion) during your lifetimes. If one of you passes away, the surviving spouse will have a $5.86 million estate tax exemption ($1.43 million of unused exemption from your spouse plus $4.43 million of your unused exemption).2

Lifetime gifting and estate planning

Typically, taking advantage of the annual $14,000 exclusion and making payments directly to medical or educational providers on behalf of loved ones is a great strategy that helps preserve your lifetime exemption.

Most advanced wealth-transfer strategies minimize gift taxes by taking advantage of the annual exclusion, the lifetime exemption and valuation discounts available under the law (a valuation discount means the gift is worth less than its apparent value for gift tax purposes).

Finally, a couple of caveats:

Lifetime gifting can be a great strategy, as long as you leave yourself enough to live on. For the gift to count, it has to be irrevocable, so be sure to plan carefully with the help of a professional.
If the estate tax is ever repealed, as it was for the 2010 tax year, you may regret having paid gift tax now in an effort to minimize your estate tax. You have to do the best you can, based on what you know now, within the context of your goals.