The real impact of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act

Congress passed the Tax Cut and Jobs Act (TCJA) at the end of 2017, which resulted in the adjustment or elimination of many common itemized deductions, an increase in the standard deduction and a shift in income tax brackets. TCJA also significantly enhanced the lifetime exemptions that allow individuals and married couples to transfer assets to children and grandchildren estate and gift tax free. You may be able to benefit from these income and estate tax changes, but you may also need to act soon.

“We have to remember that this new law only lasts through 2025,” says David Scaife, a wealth planner with U.S. Bank. “We have a short window where this applies and if we have a new administration in 2021, it could revert back to prior law at that time.”

Here are a couple major takeaways from the TCJA after year one and what you can do to reduce your tax burden.

Be strategic about estate planning

One of the biggest updates to the tax code involves the lifetime exemption for the estate tax. The exemption has essentially doubled, to almost $23 million for a married couple. You can take advantage of these elevated lifetime exemptions by transferring assets outside of your estate to a trust prior to the sunset date. The IRS has already ruled that a reversion back to old law will not cause these gifts to be “clawed back” into the estate.

Depending on your net worth, taking steps now could save you and your family a great deal of money in the long run. If you’re married and your net worth is:

  • More than $22 million, Scaife recommends considering a substantial gift to a trust as soon as possible under the current exemption. Due to the increased exemption amounts, try to make gifts of high basis assets, if possible. 
  • $10 million to $22 million, or if you’re close to $10 million and think you could top that mark before 2025, Scaife recommends working with a tax or financial professional to figure out a strategy. You’ll likely want to put money in a trust now to take advantage of the higher exemption, but you’ll want to make sure you don’t tie up so much of your wealth that you are without liquid funds. There are a number of trust strategies you can consider to help find a balance. Generally, Spousal Lifetime Access Trusts (SLATs) work well here. 
  • Less than $10 million, it is best to take a wait and see approach. A new administration could lead to changes in estate tax law and this could lead to modifications to current estate plans.

For single individuals, divide these numbers in half to figure out whether you’d benefit from creating a trust under current tax law.

What to remember about income taxes

Many of the most commonly used itemized tax deductions were eliminated or severely reduced by tax reform, including those related to state and local income and non-business property taxes, which were capped at only $10,000. The mortgage interest deduction is limited to interest on mortgage loans up to $750,000 that were taken out after December 31, 2017 and home equity loan interest has generally been eliminated.

Despite this, Scaife says it’s likely that many clients saw a lower income tax bill this year than last: “The reduction in the marginal income tax brackets more than offset the loss of itemized deductions.” Additionally, the alternative minimum tax, or AMT, was less of a factor.

“Many clients that were subject to the AMT in 2017 weren’t in 2018,” says Scaife. In 2017, some 5 million people were affected by the AMT; in 2018 that number is expected to drop to 200,000.

That same elimination of the deductions and exemptions means it’s harder to be subject to AMT. Additionally, the AMT exemption amount is higher now than it previously was. This amount is scheduled to increase each year on a cost of living basis.