California is a heavily agricultural state. With more than 25 million acres of farmland, laws and regulations affecting farmers would hit a significant portion of the Californian population. During the past year, farmers have been pushing for a number of important changes, some of which have implications for people outside of farming communities as well.
For most of 2012, farmers were faced with two major issues for which they were extensively lobbying: expiration of the farm bill (the so-called “Dairy Cliff”) and the expiration of the estate tax provisions (part of the “Fiscal Cliff”). As of January 1, 2013, the laws would revert back to the last time permanent laws were put in place. In the case of the dairy cliff, this was going to mean 1949 and was projected to significantly raise the cost of living for average Americans by immediately forcing the cost of dairy products upward to as much as double their current prices. The impact would be felt in all cheese, milk, yogurt, butter, and other dairy products. Although the “Dairy Cliff” was avoided, the new farm bill is, again, not a permanent or even long-term solution; it will expire in September 2013.
Farmers were also extremely concerned about the estate tax applicable exclusion amount decreasing to $1 million for reasons that should resonate with business owners across the state. For a profitable business with significant assets, it could be difficult to pass the farm or business on to heirs without having to liquidate significant portions in order to pay the estate tax. The concern over how to pass on the land and business assets of a family enterprise after death will now be less of a concern for many people.
Not only has the estate tax applicable exclusion amount (the amount you can pass on to heirs tax free) remained at $5 million, it has remained indexed to inflation. For individuals dying in 2013, estate tax won’t hit your heirs until your estate reaches $5.25 million. With an A-B trust or by properly utilizing the “portability” exemption, a married couple can give away a whopping $10.5 million. Additionally, with inflation increases, the amount excluded from the estate tax will only continue to increase. Although the top tax rate was increased to 40%, so few people will be affected by this new estate tax regime that one wonders why it wasn’t fully repealed.
Additionally, the amount that may be given away per year free from any gift or estate tax was increased to $14,000 in 2013 from $13,000 in 2012. For those who give annual gifts in order to reduce the size of their estates, this can significantly accelerate the amount of gifting to be done annually. Since gifts are calculated on a “per donor/per donee” basis, the person giving the gift may give $14,000 to each of an unlimited number of people; similarly, the person receiving the gift may receive $14,000 from an unlimited number of people.
Due in large part to the farming community’s lobbying efforts, they are reaping what they sowed: a gift and estate tax regime that continues to benefit very large estates! However, the absence of a significant estate tax threat is no reason to put off estate planning!