The Annual Gift Tax Exclusion

How much can you give before taxes are due?

Woman opening a gift

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The Internal Revenue Code imposes a gift tax on property or cash you give to any one person or entity, but it also provides a couple of ways to avoid the tax. One option is the annual gift tax exclusion. Only the value of a gift that exceeds this threshold can be taxed.

You can give away the amount of the exclusion each year without incurring a gift tax. The donor of the gift, not the recipient, is responsible for paying the tax when and if it comes due.

The Tax Definition of a Gift

The IRS defines a "gift" as anything for which you don't receive full consideration in return. You've given a gift of $100,000 if you sell a piece of property to your niece for $100,000, but the property had a fair market value of $200,000.

Fair market value is defined as what someone would pay for an item in a reasonable exchange when neither the buyer nor the seller is under pressure to pay too much or sell for too little.

Cash is a dollar-for-dollar value against the exclusion.

The Annual Gift Tax Exclusion for Tax Year 2022

The gift tax limit for individual filers for 2021 was $15,000. The annual gift tax exclusion was indexed for inflation as part of the Tax Relief Act of 1997, so the amount can increase from year to year to keep pace with the economy, but only in increments of $1,000. It increases to $16,000 for 2022.

Year Annual Exclusion Amount
1997 $10,000
1998 $10,000
1999 $10,000
2000 $10,000
2001 $10,000
2002 $11,000
2003 $11,000
2004 $11,000
2005 $11,000
2006 $12,000
2007 $12,000
2008 $12,000
2009 $13,000
2010 $13,000
2011 $13,000
2012 $13,000
2013 $14,000
2014 $14,000
2015 $14,000
2016 $14,000
2017 $14,000
2018 $15,000
2019 $15,000
2020 $15,000
2021 $15,000
2022 $16,000

How the Annual Exclusion Works

You could give any individual up to $15,000 in 2021 without paying a gift tax. In 2022, you can give $16,000. The "annual" part of the exclusion means you could gift $15,000 on December 31 and another $16,000 on January 1 without incurring tax because the gifts would occur in two separate years.

The gift doesn't have to be made in one lump sum. The tax will also come due if you cumulatively exceed the exclusion amount, such as if you give someone $2,000 a month for 12 months. You'd owe the gift tax on the balance of $8,000, the difference between $24,000 and the $16,000 exclusion.

Exceptions to the Rules

These rules don't apply to everything and everyone. You can make unlimited gifts in the form of tuition, other qualified educational expenses, and medical expenses if you pay the learning institution or the care provider directly. They're not gifts, and they don't count against the exclusion amount if you pay schooling or doctor bills on someone's behalf.

You can make unlimited gifts to political organizations and to your spouse as well, provided your spouse is a U.S. citizen.

Gifts to non-citizen spouses were capped at $159,000 annually in the tax year 2021, increasing to $164,000 in 2022. Similar to the annual exclusion for everyone else, you can give your non-citizen spouse this much per year without incurring a gift tax.

The Lifetime Exemption

The gift tax must be paid one way or another if you exceed the annual exclusion, but this doesn't necessarily mean that you must hand over cash to the IRS. The U.S. tax code also provides for a lifetime exemption that allows you to effectively bump the tax over to another exclusion.

This exemption is sometimes referred to as the "unified credit" because it shares its cap with the estate tax. The government gave an $11.7 million exemption as of the tax year 2021, allowing you to transfer this much money or property tax-free to other individuals, either as gifts during your lifetime or from your estate at your death. This increased to $12.06 million in 2022.

You can effectively assign any gifts that exceed the annual exclusion to this unified credit if you decide you don't want to pay the gift tax in the year you go over the amount of the exclusion. If you were to give someone $700,000 in 2021, $11 million of the exemption—plus the annual exclusion amount—would remain to shield other gifts you give over the annual exclusion and your estate at the time of your death.

Key Takeaways

  • You can give any individual up to $16,000 in calendar year 2022 and not incur a gift tax.
  • The tax applies to cash gifts as well as property.
  • Payments made directly on someone's behalf to an institution, such as a university or healthcare facility, do not fall under the gift tax.

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