The Art of Timing: Navigating Wealth Transfer for Impact and Efficiency

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What is better: To Give during Life or at Death?

Planning for the transfer of wealth is a nuanced task, involving careful consideration of various factors, including tax implications and personal circumstances. Two key factors that often dictate the timing and method of wealth transfer are gift and estate tax considerations and income tax implications.  But beyond the realm of taxation, it is the human element and the ultimate impact of the wealth transfer that often takes precedence. Moreover, it is worth noting that the vast majority of people – about 98% – will currently not exhaust their unified tax credit for gift and estate taxes, a fact that could significantly impact their wealth transfer strategies.

The Advantage of Early Gifting for the Donor

For gift and estate tax purposes, property is valued at the time of the transfer. If a property is expected to appreciate significantly over time, gifting it earlier rather than later can help reduce future gift tax or estate tax liability for the donor (the gift giver). This is because the tax is calculated based on the property’s value at the time of the gift, not at its potentially higher value at the time of your death. However, given that most individuals will never exhaust their unified credit (in 2023 at $12,920,000)– the tax credit that offsets gift and estate tax liabilities – this advantage mainly applies to those with significant wealth.

Income Tax Considerations: The ‘Step-Up in Basis’ benefits the recipient

On the other hand, from an income tax perspective, inheriting property at death can often be more beneficial for the recipients (inheritors). This is due to the ‘step-up in basis’ rule, which allows the inheritor to adjust the basis of the property to its fair market value at the time of the donor’s death. Thus, if the inheritor sells the asset,  she would only owe capital gains tax on any increase in value after the decedent’s death. If the property were received as a gift during life, the basis would be the original cost to the donor, potentially resulting in a higher capital gains tax upon sale.
Here’s a table that shows the difference between receiving the same property as a gift during the donor’s lifetime versus inheriting it at death. Assume that the original cost to the donor when she first acquired it was $100,000, but the property has appreciated in value.
Scenario Recipient’s Basis Sale Price if Sold Immediately Capital Gain
Gift during Lifetime $100,000 (Original Cost) $200,000 $100,000
Inheritance at Death $250,000 (Fair Market Value at Death) $250,000 $0

From the table, it is clear that, from an income tax perspective, inheriting property at death can often be more beneficial for the recipients due to the ‘step-up in basis’ rule. In the inheritance scenario, the capital gain is $0, whereas in the gift scenario, the capital gain is $100,000.

Balancing Tax Implications and Personal Circumstances

While it’s important to understand these tax considerations, it’s also critical to bear in mind that most people will not be subject to estate tax due to the generous unified credit. Therefore, the decision of when to transfer wealth should not be solely driven by trying to minimize gift and estate tax, especially for those whose estates are not likely to approach the estate tax exemption limit.
Rather, the focus should be on balancing tax efficiency with personal circumstances and the potential impacts on the recipients. For instance, gifting during your lifetime allows you to contribute to meaningful moments or opportunities in your recipients’ lives, such as buying a first home, starting a business, or funding education.

The Impact of Wealth Transfer: Timing and Purpose

The timing and method of wealth transfer can significantly influence not only your financial legacy but also the lives of the recipients. Making gifts during your lifetime allows you to witness the impact of your generosity and potentially guide its use. This can be particularly beneficial if the gift is intended for a specific purpose that would provide a significant opportunity for the recipient.
Conversely, inheritances that are transferred upon death may come too late to be as impactful, especially if the funds would have been more beneficial at an earlier stage in the recipients’ lives. Thus, understanding the potential personal, financial, and emotional impacts of a gift or inheritance can be just as important, if not more so, than understanding the tax implications.


Wealth transfer strategies require a comprehensive approach, taking into account not only tax considerations but also the potential impacts on the recipients. While the tax laws provide a framework, it’s the personal circumstances, the timing, and the intended impact of the wealth transfer that often dictate the most suitable strategy. As always, professional advice can be invaluable in navigating these complexities and making informed decisions that can leave a meaningful and impactful legacy.


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