What Is the Generation-Skipping Transfer Tax?

Woman works on her tax returnsEstate planning can help you pass on assets to your heirs while potentially minimizing taxes. When gifting assets, it’s important to consider when and how the generation-skipping tax transfer (GSTT) may apply. Also called the generation-skipping tax, this federal tax can apply when a grandparent leaves assets to a grandchild while skipping over their parents in the line of inheritance. It can also be triggered when leaving assets to someone who’s at least 37.5 years younger than you. If you’re considering “skipping” any of your heirs when passing on assets, it’s important to understand what that means from a tax perspective and how to fill out the requisite form. A financial advisor can also give you valuable guidance on how best to pass along your estate to your beneficiaries.

Generation-Skipping Tax, Definition

The Internal Revenue Code imposes both gift and estate taxes on transfers of assets above certain limits. For 2020, you can exclude gifts of up to $15,000 per person from the gift tax, with the limit doubling for married couples who file a joint return. Estate tax applies to estates larger than $11,580,000 for 2020, increasing to $11,700,000 in 2021. Again, these exemption limits double for married couples filing a joint return.

The gift tax rate can be as high as 40%, while the estate tax also maxes out at 40%. The IRS uses the generation-skipping transfer tax to collect its share of any wealth that moves across families when assets aren’t passed directly from parent to child. Assets subject to the generation-skipping tax are taxed at a flat 40% rate.

This tax can apply to both direct transfers of assets to your chosen beneficiaries as well as assets passed through a trust. A trust can be subject to the GSTT if all the beneficiaries of the trust are considered to be skip persons who have a direct interest in the trust.

How Generation-Skipping Transfer Tax Works

Generation-skipping tax rules cover the transfer of assets to people who at least one generation apart. A common scenario where the GSTT can apply is the transfer of assets from a grandparent to a grandchild when one or both of the grandchild’s parents are still alive. If you’re transferring assets to a grandchild because your child has predeceased you, then the transfer tax wouldn’t apply.

The generation-skipping tax is a separate tax from the estate tax and it applies alongside it. Similar to estate tax, this tax kicks in when an estate’s value exceeds the annual exemption limits. The 40% GSTT would be applied to any transfers of assets above the exempt amount, in addition to the regular 40% estate tax.

This is how the IRS covers its bases in collecting taxes on wealth as it moves from one person to another. If you were to pass your estate from your child, who then passes it to their child then no GSTT would apply. The IRS could simply collect estate taxes from each successive generation. But if you skip your child and leave assets to your grandchild instead, that removes a link from the taxation chain. The GSTT essentially allows the IRS to replace that link.

You do have the ability to take advantage of lifetime estate and gift tax exemption limits, which can help to offset how much is owed for the generation-skipping tax. But any unused portion of the exemption counted toward the generation-skipping tax is lost when you die.

How to Avoid Generation-Skipping Transfer Tax

Accountant prepares a tax return

If you’d like to minimize estate and gift taxes as much as possible, talking to a financial advisor can be a good place to start. An advisor who’s well-versed in gift and estate taxes can help you create a plan for transferring assets. For example, that plan might include gifting assets to your grandchildren or another generation-skipping person annually, rather than at the end of your life. Remember, you can gift up to $15,000 per person each year without incurring gift tax, or up to $30,000 per person if you’re married and file a joint return. You’d just need to keep the lifetime exemption limits in mind when scheduling gifts.

You could also make payments on behalf of a beneficiary to avoid tax. Say you want to help your granddaughter with college costs, for example. Any direct payments you make to the school to cover tuition would generally be tax-free. The same is true for direct payments made to healthcare providers if you’re paying medical expenses on behalf of someone else.

Setting up a trust may be another option worth exploring to minimize generation-skipping taxes. A generation-skipping trust allows you to transfer assets to the trust and pay estate taxes at the time of the transfer. The assets you put into the trust have to remain there during the skipped generation’s lifetime. Once they pass away, the assets in the trust could be passed on tax-free to the next generation.

This strategy requires some planning and some patience on the part of the generation that stands to inherit. But the upside is that members of the skipped generation and the generation that follows can benefit from any income the assets in the trust generates in the meantime. Trusts can also yield another benefit, in that they can offer asset protection against creditors who may file legal claims against you or your estate.

Another type of trust you might consider is a dynasty trust. This type of trust can allow you to pass assets on to future generations without triggering estate, gift or generation-skipping taxes. The caveat is that these are designed to be long-term trusts.

You can name your children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and subsequent generations as beneficiaries and the transfer of assets to the trust is irrevocable. That means once you place the assets in the trust, you won’t be able to take them back out again so it’s important to understand the implications before creating this type of trust.

The Bottom Line

Man works on his tax returns

The generation-skipping tax could take a significant bite out of the assets you’re able to leave behind to grandchildren or another eligible person. If you’re considering using this type of trust to pass on assets or you’re interested in exploring other ways to transfer assets while minimizing taxes, it’s wise to consult an estate planning lawyer or tax attorney first.

Tips for Estate Planning

  • Consider talking to your financial advisor about how to best shape your estate plan to minimize taxation. If you don’t have a financial advisor yet, finding one doesn’t have to be complicated. SmartAsset’s financial advisor matching tool makes it easy to connect with professional advisors in your local area. It takes just a few minutes to get your personalized recommendations for advisors online. If you’re ready, get started now.
  • Creating a trust can yield some advantages in your estate plan. In addition to helping you minimize tax liability, the assets in a trust are not subject to probate. That’s different from assets you leave behind in a will.

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Per Stirpes vs. Per Capita in Estate Planning

Three generations of one familyWhen creating an estate plan, one of the most basic documents you may wish to include is a will. If you have a more complicated estate, you might also need to have a trust in place. Both a will and a trust can specify how you want assets distributed among your beneficiaries. When making those decisions, it’s important to distinguish between per stirpes and per capita distributions. These are two terms you’re likely to come across when shaping your estate plan. Here’s a closer look at what per stirpes vs. per capita means.

Per Stirpes, Explained

If you’ve never heard the term per stirpes before, it’s a Latin phrase that translates to “by branch” or “by class.” When this term is applied to estate planning, it refers to the equal distribution of assets among the different branches of a family and their surviving descendants.

A per stirpes designation allows the descendants of a beneficiary to keep inherited assets within that branch of their family, even if the original beneficiary passes away. Those assets would be equally divided between the survivors.

Here’s an example of how per stirpes distributions work for estate planning. Say that you draft a will in which you designate your adult son and daughter as beneficiaries. You opt to leave your estate to them, per stirpes.

If you pass away before both of your children, then they could each claim a half share of your estate under the terms of your will. Now, assume that each of your children has two children of their own and your son passes away before you do. In that scenario, your daughter would still inherit a half share of the estate. But your son’s children would split his half of your estate, inheriting a quarter share each.

Per stirpes distributions essentially create a trickle-down effect, in which assets can be passed on to future generations if a primary beneficiary passes away. A general rule of thumb is that the flow of assets down occurs through direct descendants, rather than spouses. So, if your son were married, his children would be eligible to inherit his share of your estate, not his wife.

Per Capita, Explained

Older couple signs a will

Per capita is also a Latin term which means “by head.” When you use a per capita distribution method for estate planning, any assets you have would pass equally to the beneficiaries are still living at the time you pass away. If you’re writing a will or trust as part of your estate plan, that could include the specific beneficiaries you name as well as their descendants.

So again, say that you have a son and a daughter who each have two children. These are the only beneficiaries you plan to include in your will. Under a per capita distribution, instead of your son and daughter receiving a half share of your estate, they and your four grandchildren would each receive a one-sixth share of your assets. Those share portions would adjust accordingly if one of your children or grandchildren were to pass away before you.

Per Stirpes vs. Per Capita: Which Is Better?

Whether it makes sense to use a per stirpes or per capita distribution in your estate plan can depend largely on how you want your assets to be distributed after you’re gone. It helps to consider the pros and cons of each option.

Per Stirpes Pros:

  • Allows you to keep asset distributions within the same branch of the family
  • Eliminates the need to amend or update wills and trusts when a child is born to one of your beneficiaries or a beneficiary passes away
  • Can help to minimize the potential for infighting among beneficiaries since asset distribution takes a linear approach

Per Stirpes Cons:

  • It’s possible an unwanted person could take control of your assets (i.e., the spouse of one of your children if he or she is managing assets on behalf of a minor child)

Per Capita Pros:

  • You can specify exactly who you want to name as beneficiaries and receive part of your estate
  • Assets are distributed equally among beneficiaries, based on the value of your estate at the time you pass away
  • You can use this designation to pass on assets outside of a will, such as a 401(k) or IRA

Per Capita Cons:

  • Per capita distributions could trigger generation-skipping tax for grandchildren or other descendants who inherit part of your estate

Deciding whether it makes more sense to go with per stirpes vs. per capita distributions can ultimately depend on your personal preferences. Per stirpes distribution is typically used in family settings when you want to ensure that individual branches of the family will benefit from your estate. On the other hand, per capita distribution gives you control over which individuals or group of individuals are included as beneficiaries.

Review Beneficiary Designations Periodically

Multi-generational family

If you have a will and/or a trust, you may have named your beneficiaries. But it’s possible that you may want to change those designations at some point. If you named your son and his wife in your will, for example, but they’ve since gotten divorced you may want to update the will with a codicil to exclude his ex-wife. It’s also helpful to check the beneficiary designations on retirement accounts, investment accounts and life insurance policies after a major life change.

For example, if you get divorced then you may not want your spouse to be the beneficiary of your retirement accounts. Or if they pass away before you, you may want to update your beneficiary designations to your children or grandchildren.

The Bottom Line

Per stirpes and per capita distribution rules can help you decide what happens to your assets after you pass away. But they both work very differently. Understanding the implications of each one for your beneficiaries, including how they may be affected from a tax perspective, can help you decide which course to take.

Tips for Estate Planning

  • Consider talking to a financial advisor about how to get started with estate planning and what per stirpes vs. per capita distributions might mean for your heirs. If you don’t have a financial advisor yet, finding one doesn’t have to be complicated. SmartAsset’s financial advisor matching tool can help you connect, within minutes, with a professional advisor in your local area. If you’re ready, get started now.
  • While it’s always a good idea to consult with a financial advisor about estate planning, you can take a do-it-yourself approach to writing a will by doing it online. Here’s what you need to know about digital DIY will writing.

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