If you want to share some of your wealth with your grandchildren or great grandchildren — or if your estate plan is likely to benefit these generations — it’s critical to consider and plan for the generation-skipping transfer (GST) tax. Designed to ensure that wealth is taxed at each generational level, the GST tax is among the harshest and most complex in the tax code. It’s also among the most misunderstood.
ABCs of the GST tax
To ensure that wealth is taxed at each generational level, the GST tax applies at a flat, 40% rate — in addition to otherwise applicable gift and estate taxes — to transfers that skip a generation. The tax applies to transfers to “skip persons,” including your grandchildren, other relatives who are more than one generation below you and unrelated people who are more than 37½ years younger than you.
There’s an exception, however, for a grandchild whose parent (your child) predeceases you. In that case, the grandchild moves up a generation and is no longer considered a skip person.
Even though the GST tax enjoys an inflation-adjusted lifetime exemption in the same amount as the lifetime gift and estate tax exemption ($12.92 million for 2023), it works a bit differently. For example, while the gift and estate tax exemption automatically protects eligible transfers of wealth, the GST tax exemption must be allocated to a transfer to shelter it from tax.
The tax code contains automatic allocation rules designed to prevent you from inadvertently losing the exemption, but it can be dangerous to rely solely on these rules. In some cases, the exemption isn’t automatically allocated to transfers that may trigger costly GST taxes. And in others, the exemption is automatically allocated to transfers that are unlikely to need its protection, wasting those exemption amounts.
3 types of GST tax triggers
Three types of transfers may trigger GST taxes:
- “Direct skips” — transfers directly to a skip person that are subject to federal gift and estate tax,
- Taxable distributions — distributions from a trust to a skip person, or
- Taxable terminations — for example, if you establish a trust for your children, a taxable termination occurs when the last child beneficiary dies and the trust assets pass to your grandchildren.
As noted above, the GST tax doesn’t apply to transfers to which you allocate your GST tax exemption. In addition, the GST tax annual exclusion — which is similar to the gift tax annual exclusion — currently allows you to transfer up to $17,000 per year to any number of skip persons without triggering GST tax or using up any of your GST tax exemption. Note, however, that transfers in trust qualify for the exclusion only if certain requirements are met.
If your estate plan calls for making substantial gifts, either outright or in trust, to your grandchildren or other skip persons, be sure to allocate your GST tax exemption carefully. We can help you devise a strategy that leverages the exemption and minimizes your GST tax liability.