Should you give your kids an early inheritance?

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Should you consider gifting money to your children now rather than later in life?
Making financial gifts to your children now, instead of in your will, can be very satisfying. Here are things to consider.
REMINDER: Merrill, its affiliates, and financial advisors do not provide legal, tax, or accounting advice. You should consult your legal and/or tax advisors before making any financial decisions.
It turns out your son, the computer geek, hasn't been wasting all that time on the couch with his laptop after all. Now he's got a really cool mobile app and is working day and night to launch his own company. Your daughter is two years away from finishing her Ph.D. in microbiology — if only she could afford the tuition.
If you're in a position to help your children financially, you may have been thinking about leaving them gifts in your will. But what about assisting with real-life needs that pop up now? Would it be more satisfying to you — and helpful to your kids — if you were able to give during your lifetime?

Give now or later?

Giving now rather than later is the preferred approach for many financially comfortable people these days. According to a 2019 Merrill study, Leaving a Legacy: A Lasting Gift to Loved Ones,Footnote 1 65% of Americans 55 and older say it's better to pass on at least part of their estate while they are still alive.

Questions to consider

"It's important to take the time and be deliberate in thinking through whether transferring some of your wealth now makes sense," says Matthew Wesley, managing director of the Merrill Center for Family Wealth™. "Think about the potential rewards and risks, not only from your standpoint, but also that of your family members," he adds. He recommends asking yourself some questions as you consider the best ways to share your wealth with family members.
Am I over-giving? "That's the top question, by far," Wesley says. Before you give to your children, make sure that you are not risking your own financial future. We see parents give without having set aside sufficient resources for themselves. The gift usually turns out to solve a short-term problem, but in the long run, they become financially dependent on their children.
If I give to one child now, must I give to all? Some of your children may prefer to wait for their inheritance, while others could benefit greatly from having the assets today. "The most effective approach to giving may vary widely from one family to the next, with different individuals having different needs," Wesley says. "Perceptions of fairness vary widely. If you can do so, having an open conversation with your children can forestall longer term resentment or rifts. While the decision should be yours, getting input will clarify expectations and give you insight into the impact of your giving on your children."
The U.S. tax code makes it fairly easy to give your children money, stocks or other investments or a piece of the family business.
For instance, if your son's start-up requires seed money to beat the competition to market and other investors are hard to come by, giving him his entire inheritance early might make a lot of sense. You'll get the satisfaction of seeing him invest in his future. And he won't have to defer his dream.
But consider, too, how your other children might feel about your gift and what their immediate needs are. Try to talk with everyone, and make it clear that giving now could affect how much they will receive later on, through your will.
"For some people, the best approach may be to give both now and later," Wesley adds. "This provides you the flexibility to start small, see what your children do with these gifts and adjust your giving as you go. If you choose to leave an inheritance in your will as well, you can do so with added clarity, increasing the probability that your gift will be productive."

Give now or later: The IRS doesn't care

For tax purposes, the timing of your generosity makes little difference if your family is not likely to be subject to estate taxes.
The U.S. tax code makes it fairly easy to give your children money, stocks or other investments or a piece of the family business. In 2021, you can transfer up to $11.7 million ($23.4 million for married couples) during life as a gift or at death through a will, free from federal gift and estate taxes (the $11.7 million is indexed to inflation, so it will increase until the end of 2025).Footnote 2 This federal gift tax exemption is commonly referred to as your lifetime exemption.
In addition to the $11.7 million you can gift during your lifetime, each year you can also gift $15,000 ($30,000 for married couples electing to split gifts) to as many people as you like without triggering gift taxes. These are commonly referred to as annual exclusion gifts. Annual exclusion gifts have no bearing on your lifetime exemption and won't reduce the $11.7 million exemption amount. A couple interested in maximizing their gifting opportunity may give $30,000 to each and every member of their immediate and extended family each year and also gift $23.4 million in trust for their children and grandchildren to benefit from now and into the future.
But tax considerations are only one thing to factor into your decision about whether and when to give gifts to your children. Remember, you'll also want to weigh your children's needs, the impact giving would have on your own financial situation and how it may affect family harmony if you give now to one child and later to another. "In many cases, giving now may be especially satisfying, as long as you evaluate all of the implications," Wesley says. "The more you're able to focus on what you want the assets to accomplish, the more your enjoyment is likely to increase."

Next steps

Footnote 1 Merrill/Age Wave, "Leaving a Legacy: A Lasting Gift to Loved Ones," 2019.

Footnote 2 After 2025, the exemption amount will decrease to $5 million (indexed for inflation since 2010).

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