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  • Writer's pictureSteve Bish

Gifting cash to loved ones this Christmas? Beware the inheritance tax trap!

inheritance Tax

Ian Dyall is head of estate planning at wealth manager Evelyn Partners.

Gifting cash might be more welcome than ever this Christmas. In grim economic times, older savers with some accumulated wealth might decide that some of their hard-earned assets should be transferred to younger generations now – rather than deferring their generosity until the reading of a will.

The good news is that, done properly, this can go some way to reducing or negating inheritance tax liability, thereby increasing the benefit to all concerned.

This is becoming relevant to more and more families as an increasing number of estates are dragged into the inheritance tax net by asset price inflation and the frozen nil-rate bands.

This allowance deep freeze was extended to the 2027/28 tax year in the Autumn Statement – and the Office for Budget Responsibility expects inheritance tax receipts to soar 28 per cent as a result, from £6.1billion in 2021/22 to £7.8billion in 2027/28.

Meanwhile, sharing wealth and helping loved ones financially is becoming even more of a priority as demands mount on the budgets of young families.

Passing on wealth during their lifetime also rewards the giver with the satisfaction of seeing the benefits being enjoyed.

But while it can in addition bring tax advantages, lack of familiarity with the rules could also be punished with tax penalties.

When is gifting cash tax free?

At Christmas, the majority of casual monetary gifts will fall within HMRC's allowable limits. But more generous or ongoing transfers can cause tax issues for the recipient, so in this case some planning is advisable.

Whether the handing over of a large cash sum is a festive gift or not, more care is required to make sure the Treasury doesn't get an inheritance tax present further down the line.

There are some basic transfers that are tax-free.

  • Gifts up to any value between UK domiciled spouses and civil partners.

  • Gifts for the 'national benefit', such as gifts to museums and libraries.

  • Gifts to charity of any value are also free from tax and may even qualify you for an element of income tax relief through Gift Aid.

Gifts to individuals that do not fall within the above categories might also be untaxable as long as they meet the following conditions.

Gifts to individuals that do not fall within the above categories might also be untaxable as long as they meet the following conditions.

  • Total gifts made by you in a tax year total less than £3,000. You can also carry forward any unused £3,000 allowance from the previous tax year, making financial gifts of up to £6,000 possible this Christmas.

  • Small gifts of up to £250 can be made to any number of people in the tax year, provided the total to any one person does not exceed £250.

  • If it does, this exemption does not apply and all gifts would start to use up the aforementioned £3,000 allowance.

  • Gifts out of regular income that are part of normal ongoing expenditure can also be made (see below for more about this).

  • If it does, this exemption does not apply and all gifts would start to use up the aforementioned £3,000 allowance.

  • Gifts out of regular income that are part of normal ongoing expenditure can also be made (see below for more about this).

  • Money can also be given as a gift tax free in the event of a marriage or civil partnership amounting to £5,000 from each parent, £2,500 from each grandparent and up to £1,000 from any other person. These would not use up any of the other allowances.

What happens if you breach any of these limits?

Larger gifts can obviously be made, and without causing any issue as long as the donor then survives for seven years, during which time such gifts remain 'potentially exempt transfers'.

If the donor dies within seven years, the nil-rate band of £325,000 is reduced by the value of the gifts (so in a sense they are counted as never having left the estate), and tax on assets above the NRB will be due at up to 40 per cent.

We say 'up to' because if the gifts put together exceeded the nil rate band, then taper relief can apply, which reduces the tax paid on older gifts.

If there were three to four years between date of gift and death, the inheritance tax rate lowers to 32 per cent, while at six to seven years the rate falls to just 8 per cent.

All this means that large gifts exceeding the nil rate band can moderate inheritance tax liability even if they fall foul of the seven-year rule.

If a gift does become liable for inheritance tax, it is the recipient who will have to pay, and they may not have the resources to meet a surprise tax bill when it arrives, possibly having spent the money.

A corollary of all this is that if someone makes a gift of a value below the nil-rate band to one person and then dies within seven years, all the beneficiaries of the estate could share the liability on the lifetime gift received by one person.

The only time, in the main, that a donor will be subject to tax upon a gift during their lifetime would be if they made a gift to a discretionary trust, over the donor's available inheritance tax nil rate band.

What if you make a 'gift with reservation'?

If a donor gives something but continues to receive a benefit from it - such as a house where they continue to reside - the donor isn't liable in the sense that they will need to pay a tax bill during their lifetime.

A 'gift with reservation' simply remains part of the estate for inheritance tax purposes, so the executors might need to pay more tax on the estate.

But it is worth remembering that for the purpose of other taxes like capital gains tax, the gift IS effective, which could create a 'worst of both worlds' situation.

For example, if you gift your home to your child but live in it without paying a market rent, the gift is ineffective for inheritance tax relief, so inheritance tax will still be paid on it on death.

However, for capital gains tax purposes, the property does belong to the recipient, but if they don't live there – or if they had already owned a home - there would probably be no exemption for main residence relief when it is sold on any capital gains since they received it.

Donors considering such steps would be well served by some specialist tax advice as these are complex areas.

What if you make gifts out of your surplus income?

Many donors like to give ongoing regular amounts, to young relatives for instance, into a savings or investment vehicle such as a Junior Isa, pension or trust.

But to remain free from inheritance tax, regular gifts must meet certain rules.

Surplus income is what remains after all of your outgoings have been paid: funds left over which are surplus to needs and have no bearing on your standard of living.

Your income includes earnings from employment and pensions, and it can also include interest, dividends and rental income.

But some regular payments which savers might think of as 'income' are not counted. Two of the most common examples of this are regular withdrawals taken from a life assurance bond and if you have a purchased life annuity (in other words, it was not purchased with pension funds and was bought through other sources).

Only part of the annuity will be considered as income and the remainder will be a return of your invested capital, as will all the withdrawals made from life assurance bonds.

Making regular financial gifts can be as simple as setting up a regular standing order directly into the recipient's bank account.

Alternatively, you might want to set up some sort of policy for the recipient, such as a life insurance or pension plan, and you could pay the regular premiums out of your surplus income.

Parents or grandparents can pay into a Junior Isa, an early-years pension or a trust to house accumulated regular gifts for their offspring.

The 'normal expenditure out of income' exemption will apply even if you die within seven years of the last gift, as long as three key rules are met.

The 'normal expenditure out of income' exemption will apply even if you die within seven years of the last gift, as long as three key rules are met.

  • The gifts must be made out of your income.

  • They form a part of your 'normal expenditure' and are paid out on a regular basis.

  • The payments should not have any impact on your own standard of living.

In this case, the gifts will be exempt from inheritance tax and neither the recipients nor the estate will pay tax on them.

Normal expenditure can be a grey and difficult area, and a possible source of dispute with HMRC when executors come to deal with an inheritance tax liability.

The best policy for a donor is to set out their intentions around regular gifting and to keep clear paperwork recording the gifts, alongside their overall income and expenditure.

What about setting up a trust?

Many older savers want to transfer wealth during their lifetime but prefer to retain some access or control over the assets.

For this purpose two types of trust are of particular interest.

A discretionary trust can allay some concerns that a beneficiary might squander assets, or lose them through divorce or a business insolvency. It might simply limit access until a child is of age.

The beneficiary will be listed as one of several possible beneficiaries and will only benefit at the trustees' discretion, so the trust can protect the assets, and the timing and size of any payments made from the trust can be controlled.

Each person can gift up to the £325,000 nil rate band into discretionary trusts in any seven-year period without triggering an inheritance tax liability.

Gifts exceeding this will be immediately liable to inheritance tax at 20 per cent with further tax due if they die within seven years.

A bare trust can also be useful, particularly where grandparents wish to invest for grandchildren.

When investing for minor beneficiaries, the natural instinct is to use tax-beneficial wrappers such as a Junior Isa, but these are limited in size and can't be accessed before age 18, even for the child's benefit.

If a grandparent invests for a grandchild using a bare trust, the invested amount is unlimited and money from the trust can be used for the child's benefit before 18 if required.

The investments are taxable, but it is the minor beneficiary who is liable, and their personal income tax and capital gains tax allowances usually eliminate any liability.

While bare trusts can be as tax efficient as a Junior Isa but less limiting, anti-avoidance legislation does exist where the money is provided by a parent rather than a grandparent.

If the income exceeds £100 the income is taxable against the parent. The Junior Isa has a slight tax advantage for parental investments as they are not caught by these measures.


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