Estate Planning Estate Tax Gift Tax

Increasing the Available Gift and Estate Tax Exemption for a Surviving Spouse

James R. O’Neill —

In planning for the estate of a surviving spouse, the availability of the unused gift and estate tax exemption of his or her deceased spouse can be important, and particularly so with the impending reduction of the exemption. The federal gift and estate tax exemption, which was doubled pursuant to the 2017 Tax Cut and Jobs Act and presently stands at $12,920,000, is scheduled to be automatically reduced by approximately one-half on January 1, 2026.[1] The exemption is portable between spouses allowing for use by the surviving spouse of any unused exemption of the deceased spouse. This portability arises under IRC Section 2010(c)(5)(A), which provides that a deceased spousal unused exclusion (“DSUE”) amount becomes available for use with a surviving spouse’s subsequent transfers during life and at death, but only if the executor of the first-to-die’s estate timely files Form 706, United States Estate (and Generation-Skipping Transfer) Tax Return (“Form 706”). The due date of a Form 706 required to elect portability is the date which is nine months after the decedent’s death, or the last day of the period covered by an extension, which may be obtained for six additional months. The so-called DSUE election is automatically made by timely filing a Form 706 unless the executor affirmatively opts out as permitted on the return. The portability election, once made, becomes irrevocable once the due date of the Form 706, including extensions granted, has expired.

An executor may file a Form 706 for the estate of any U.S. citizen or resident, but the executor is only required to file a Form 706 under IRC Section 6018(a) if the value of the gross estate, plus adjusted taxable gifts, exceeds the exemption amount for the year of death. Given the effort and expense of preparing a Form 706 when not otherwise required, particularly when the assets of the surviving spouse are not expected to exceed the current exemption amount, a Form 706 is often not filed when the first spouse dies, resulting in the deceased spouse’s unused exemption being unavailable to the surviving spouse. With the scheduled reduction of the exemption after 2025, it may, in many cases, be important to recover that unused exemption of the deceased spouse for use by the surviving spouse.