Big money is flowing to children before tax rates could change

November 21, 2012 9:06:21 PM PST
A tremendous amount of money, perhaps more than $1 trillion, is quietly being transferred from parents to their children as this year draws to a close. There's been very little said about it, mostly because the families involved would like to keep it quiet. ABC7 News looks at an anticipated change in the estate tax structure that is really causing a frenzy. Estate planners say they've never seen anything like it.

Here's the tale of two children. First we'll start first at a Head Start day care program in the Mission District.

The kids at the day care program are the children of working class and working poor families in San Francisco. Mission Head Start serves 380 preschoolers.

"We have nutritional services, we have special needs services, we have meals for children," said Dolores Terrazas from Mission Head Start.

What they don't have is a lot of money. Federal funding for this program has been static for seven years and state funding has dropped 30 percent.

But in the offices of estate planners and tax attorney's, there is a river of money moving to more fortunate children.

Tax attorney Michael Burnstein is a partner at Schiff Hardin LLP. He says, "There's no comparison. This is the busiest year I've ever seen."

Jennifer McCall is a tax attorney at Pillsbury Winthrop. She said, "As I said to you when you came in, we're trying not to hyperventilate."

Dave Brown is a senior vice president with Bank of Marin. He said, "The biggest flurry of year end activity that I've ever seen."

Financial advisor Bruce Dzieza is describes a tsunami of calls from his clients. He said, "They're concerned about losing their family business or family farm or their real estate because of taxes."

These tax and estate experts are all talking about a little known provision of much talked about fiscal cliff. Next year of Congress doesn't act, the estate tax will increase from 35 percent to 55 percent, and the amount that you can give tax free to your children will drop from $10 million per couple this year to $2 million per couple next year.

"You're talking about a very significant tax bite," said Burnstein. He said if couple's don't take advantage of this year's exemption, their heirs could pay dearly. He says a $10 million estate could now be worth roughly $6 million.

So families with more than a couple of million are rushing to gift their children before year's end.

Thomas Berg is managing director of FMV, a company that appraises businesses and real estate. He told us, "Our business is up 30 to 40 percent right now. We see a lot of anxiety, a lot of angst to try to move wealth to the next generation before the tax laws change."

The amount of money being transferred won't be known until after taxes are filed, but everyone we talked to says it's big.

"It could be big enough to have a 'T' behind the number, as it trillions," said Brown.

Back at the day care center in Mission District where money is tight and getting tighter, Terrazas says the $10 million exemption should be lowered, but the estate tax rate of 55 percent, that seems high, even to her.

"People also made that money and they are entitled to at least half of that money," said Terrazas.

But as Congress debates what the right rate and exemption combination should be Burnstein says there's a real divide among the rich.

"There are the folks that really care about the exemption and then there are the people that really care about the rates and it's the super wealthy that care about the rates," said Burnstein.

The difference is pretty simple, if you have an estate worth $5 million and the exemption stays where it is at $5 million per individual, you're heirs get a $5 million benefit. But if the tax rate goes from 35 to 55 percent, and you have $1 billion, that's roughly $200 million extra. So watch what Congress does with the estate tax rate.


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