The real impact of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act

Financial Planning

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 with a new administration in place, many provisions could revert back to the prior law as soon as this year.”

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

Be strategic about estate planning

One of the biggest changes from the TCJA involves the lifetime exemption for the estate tax. The exemption has essentially doubled, which is currently $23.4 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 existing or potentially revised 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 $23 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.
  • $7 million to $23 million, or if you’re close to $10 million and think you could top that mark before 2025 (or earlier, if the sunset date is accelerated), 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’re 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 $7 million, it’s best to take a wait and see approach.

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

Changes in tax brackets offset loss of itemized deductions

Many of the most commonly used itemized tax deductions were eliminated or severely reduced by the TCJA, 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 have seen a lower income tax bill the last couple of years: “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. 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.

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