To Give Now or Give Later?

Tom Fridrich, Senior Wealth Planner 


You’re in a good position in your life. You’ve built up your wealth, perhaps from a successful business or working in corporate America. You might feel it’s time to start winding down and that you’re in a place where you’re figuring out whether to transfer some of those assets to the next generation.  The question then becomes whether you want to gift to your heirs during your lifetime, or to leave an inheritance to them after your death. 

There are several elements of this decision to consider that vary based on your circumstances. Perhaps you have a large estate that will expose you to estate taxes. Maybe you own multiple pieces of real estate that you rent out and use for personal use that have appreciated in value over the years. Or perhaps you own  investments and stocks that you want to offload. You might even have a family business you are looking to retire from and exit or sell. 

In all those cases, does it make sense to transfer some of those interests to the next generation now or after death? We’ll explore that decision in this article and the tax implications of both choices – for both you and your heirs. 

Exploring the Decision

Just because you have a certain asset that might make sense in theory to consider transitioning, does it make sense economically to do it now? Can you afford to give it away? Should you give it away or sell it? If you do decide to give it away, do you want to gift large amounts or make smaller annual gifts? 

The decision to give now or later depends on whether it makes economic sense for you to do so. If it does, then it’s a good idea to explore. The economics of it are a big factor. If you need to keep those assets in your estate to cover your own expenses, then it’s likely not a good idea. 

For example, if you have a family business or asset that comprises a high percentage of your family’s net worth and it’s the sole thing providing your family income or much of your estate, it might not be a good idea to give ownership stakes to your heirs just yet. 

In that case, it might make more sense to keep that wealth in your estate – whether it be investments, stocks, land, a vacation home or real estate – so that the net worth of the estate can continue to grow, which can lead to more future giving. 

Gifting to Heirs During Life

If you deem it a good economic decision to gift during your life, the second thing you need to explore is control. If you’re thinking about gifting during your lifetime, you have to be comfortable with relinquishing control. That can be the most challenging aspect – whether it’s a business or real estate that’s been in the family, are you willing to give up control of that asset? 

The reason this is difficult is that we enjoy having control over our assets, and we might not be ready to give up that control. In theory, you might think, “Why not give assets away? The kids are getting older.” While we might have good reasons to gift during our lifetime, our heirs might not be ready, gifting might cause conflict or you might not see a good solution. If you hold onto the asset, then you can avoid these potential issues. 

Gifting a business is perhaps the most complicated asset to consider giving away. Who should receive it – a family member, or a nonfamily member who has worked in the business for years? Should it even be a gift, or do you need some consideration to help fund your retirement? If you give it to the kids, which one should receive it – or should it go to all of them equally? These questions are not easily answered but should be considered, among other things, when deciding how to transfer a business.  

However, if you are just trying to decide if general gifting is a good idea for your family, there is a way to evaluate your heirs to see if they are ready to handle the gifts. You can first establish a goal for what you want to see them use the money for – charitable causes, self-improvement, entrepreneurship – and then communicate that to them. Be clear that you want to see them do something specific with the money, and then evaluate how they do. If you feel they did well with the first round of giving, you can decide whether to continue the giving or to help them improve. 

Gift and Estate Taxes

Both sides of the decision come with taxes – whether it be gift taxes or estate taxes. 

The IRS has the Uniform Estate and Gift Tax Exemption amount, which in 2022 is $12.06 million, up from $11.7 million in 2021. This means you could give away $12.06 million in your lifetime tax-free; however, anything you give above that amount, even at death, is going to be subject to estate taxes. You could also hold on to that $12.06 million and give it as a bequest when you die. 

Essentially, the IRS doesn’t care when you give your assets away, but you’ve got $12.06 million you can give away gift tax- and estate tax-free. With that in mind, one ideal situation for giving assets away during your lifetime is a highly appreciating asset that you could continue to grow outside your estate. 

For example, if you give $10 million away and it grows, that growth is now part of somebody else’s estate. Whereas if you keep it and its value increases to $30 million, that growth is now part of your estate, and it will be subject to gift taxes if you gift it later and estate taxes if you bequeath it at death. 

Income Taxes and Basis

Another example is the case of giving a child or grandchild who is in a lower tax bracket your assets such that the income will be taxed at their lower rate, instead of your higher rate. Let’s look at real estate as an example. Maybe you own an office building and are leasing it out. It might be in a part of the country where commercial real estate is increasing in value quickly. You could transfer it to your daughter so she can own and manage it and receive the monthly lease payments. 

Your daughter would manage the leases and everything that comes with that, and then the income would go to her. That income is going to be lower, but it is no longer being reported by you and she receives your basis in the property as well. 

 When you gift or pass down an asset during life to reduce estate and income taxes, the downside is carryover basis, which means the basis remains the same as when it was held by you. 

For example, say that same commercial real estate we talked about earlier was valued at $8 million, and at the time it was transferred, your basis is $2 million. You’ve gifted $8 million, effectively using up $8 million in your gift tax exemption. Now it’s part of your daughter’s estate. Let’s say it appreciated to $18 million – her basis is only $2 million, and when she sells that real estate, she’s now got a $16 million gain she has to report.  If she pays capital gains taxes on that gain, which is currently 23.6%, that is $3.8 million in taxes. 

If you give assets away, ideally you would identify assets that are appreciating quickly to get that growth out of your estate. However, the downside is if you gift that asset to a child, the growth occurs out of your estate, but the basis carries over to the child. The positive of holding on is the step-up in basis, which is the fair market value of the asset at the time of the owner’s death.   

The step-up in basis is a great way to avoid paying taxes when the recipient of the asset decides to sell. If the recipient sells shortly after receiving the asset at death, then there may be little or no growth in the value of the asset.  

For example, let’s say that instead of gifting the commercial real estate from the previous example, you decide to hold onto it until death. It is valued at $18 million and included in your estate, so you are likely to owe estate taxes with that kind of wealth and the exemption at $12.06 million. So, you would pay 40% on the amount above $12 million, which comes to $2.4 million. 

However, if the daughter inherits the building at death, her basis in the property is no longer $2 million, but the fair market value of the property, which is $18 million. If she decides to sell the property right away for $18 million, then her gain is $0 because her basis was $18 million, and the sale price was $18 million. So, with the gifting strategy, she owed $3.8 million, but with this strategy, she owes nothing. A nice win for her, but you paid $2.4 million in estate taxes. 

You could also identify assets where you have a high basis in relation to the value of the property, because that basis carries over. Let’s say I have stock that hasn’t appreciated. I bought it for $100,000 and it’s currently valued at $110,000. I want to transfer that stock because the value is close to my basis. I transfer it over to my daughter, and she gets it and says, “That stock is great, but I don’t see the value in it, and since I’m in a lower tax bracket I am going to sell it, realize some gain and put it elsewhere.”  

If I were to hold onto that stock until I die, the step-up in basis isn’t going to get me very far, nor will it get my daughter very far at that point. Therefore, in this case, it might be an asset that you gift away to allow the next generation to better position themselves to build wealth. 

Gifting and the Annual Gift Tax Exclusion

The annual gift tax exclusion stipulates that you can give anyone up to $16,000 a year that’s exempt from taxes, up from $15,000 in 2021. If you are married, your spouse can also give $16,000, for a total of $32,000. 

This allows individuals to give $16,000 (or $32,000 for couples) away to anyone without paying any federal gift taxes. It’s a great way to lower the amount of your estate if you think you might have an estate tax problem, as well as to watch your loved ones benefit from your giving, instead of waiting until death. 

One of the benefits of lifetime giving is you can see what your kids and grandkids do with those assets. How do they manage them? Are they investing? Or are they wasting them? Does it make sense to transfer greater wealth? By giving in your lifetime, you can get a feel for who does a better job with the opportunity and to see how they manage those gifts. 

There are also some gifts that don’t count toward the annual gift tax exclusion. Some of those include paying for a child’s or grandchild’s tuition or paying for medical bills. You must pay the tuition straight to the school or the bills straight to the medical facility, and you don’t have to report those for gift taxes.  

A Professional Can Help

This is a complicated decision and one that is best made with the help of a trusted financial professional. Each person’s situation is unique, and exploring what would be the best course for you is key.  

Get in touch with your financial professional today to help ensure you’re making the right choice for you. 


For a comprehensive review of your personal situation, always consult with a tax or legal advisor. Neither Cetera Advisor Networks LLC nor any of its representatives may give legal or tax advice.

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