Sunday, April 7, 2019

You Inherit. Can You Owe Estate Tax?

I came across an estate tax lien case the other day.

It has become unlikely that one will owe estate tax, as the lifetime exclusion has now gone over $11 million. Still, it can and does happen.

The federal estate tax is an odd beast. It is a combination of assets owned or controlled at death, increased by an addback for reportable lifetime gifts. This system is called a “unified” tax, and the intent is to not avoid the estate tax by giving property away to family over the course of a lifetime. In truth, the addback is necessary, as tax planners (including me) would drive an 18-wheeler through the estate tax if the lifetime-gift addback did not exist.

There is a potential trap if the estate tax kicks-in.

Let me give you a scenario, very loosely based on the case.  

Mr Arshem was successful. He created and funded a family limited partnership with real estate, stock and securities. He began a multi-year gifting sequence to his children, each time claiming a generous discount for lack of control and marketability. He had cumulatively gifted away $5 million in this manner.

He passed away early in 2019. He died with an estate of $6 million.

On first pass, $6 million plus $5 million equals $11 million. He is just under the threshold, so he should not have an estate tax issue – right?

Not so fast.

The IRS audits one or more of those gift tax returns. They argue that the discounts were too generous, and the reportable gifts were actually $8 million. The estate disagrees; they go to Court; the estate loses.

Now we have $8 million plus $5 million for $13 million.

There is an estate tax filing requirement.

And estate tax due.

Let’s say that the estate had been probated and closed. There no estate assets remaining.

Who pays the tax?

Look over this little beauty:
§ 6324 Special liens for estate and gift taxes.
(a)  Liens for estate tax.
Except as otherwise provided in subsection (c) -
(1)  Upon gross estate.
Unless the estate tax imposed by chapter 11 is sooner paid in full, or becomes unenforceable by reason of lapse of time, it shall be a lien upon the gross estate of the decedent for 10 years from the date of death, except that such part of the gross estate as is used for the payment of charges against the estate and expenses of its administration, allowed by any court having jurisdiction thereof, shall be divested of such lien.
(2)  Liability of transferees and others.
If the estate tax imposed by chapter 11 is not paid when due, then the spouse, transferee, trustee (except the trustee of an employees' trust which meets the requirements of section 401(a) ), surviving tenant, person in possession of the property by reason of the exercise, nonexercise, or release of a power of appointment, or beneficiary, who receives, or has on the date of the decedent's death, property included in the gross estate under sections 2034 to 2042 , inclusive, to the extent of the value, at the time of the decedent's death, of such property, shall be personally liable for such tax.

It is not the easiest of reading.

What (a)(2) means is that the IRS can after the transferees – the children of Mr Arshem in our example. There is also a sneaky twist. Income tax liens have to be recorded; estate tax liens do not. They are referred to as “silent” liens and can create unexpected – and unpleasant – surprises.  You cannot go to the courthouse and research if one exists.

What if Arshem’s children received his assets and thereafter sold them? What happens to the lien?

The children are “transferees.” They are personally liable for the estate tax.
COMMENT: There are procedures to possibly mitigate this consequence, but we will pass on their discussion in this post.
The case is U.S. v Ringling. The moral of the story is – if the estate is large enough to draw the wrath of the federal estate tax – please consult an experienced professional. Think of it as insurance.

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