by: Prof. Beckett G. Cantley
Atlanta’s John Marshal Law School


Most people are aware that the government has imposed a Federal Estate Tax (“Estate Tax”) and a Federal Gift Tax (“Gift Tax”) liability on transfers of property.  However, few people are aware that there is a second level of transfer tax imposed by Uncle Sam on transfers made by an individual during life or at death: the Generation-Skipping Transfer Tax (“GST Tax”).  A lifetime gift-giving program to one’s children which makes use of an individual’s annual exclusion from Gift Tax is generally a good estate planning tool.  Likewise, a basic, tax-oriented Last Will and Testament (“Will”) is generally a good estate planning tool when cash or other assets are being transferred only to a decedent’s wife and/or children.  However, if an individual transfers cash or other assets directly to his or her grandchildren, either in life or at death (while either of the grandchild’s parents are living), then this transfer is a generation-skipping transfer.  Likewise, if an individual (the “Grantor”) places cash or other assets into a trust for the benefit of his or her children for life with the remainder upon their deaths to pass to their children, then when the Grantor’s children die, the transfer from the Grantor’s children to the Grantor’s grandchildren is a generation-skipping transfer.  In addition, if the Grantor places cash or other assets into a trust for the benefit of his or her descendants, and at some future date the Grantor’s grandchildren receive a distribution of income or principal from the trust, then the transfer is also a generation-skipping transfer.

In each of the above generation-skipping transfers, the GST Tax imposes a transfer tax.  In the case of the cash or other assets remaining in trust, this transfer tax is imposed essentially as if the children had owned the cash or other assets outright and in fee simple at their deaths and had directly transferred it to their children.  This, however, may not be the end of the taxing of the transferred cash or other assets.  After the deaths of the grandchildren, if the property remains in trust for the benefit of the great-grandchildren, then upon their deaths, the property is subject to another application of the GST Tax.  This is because each transfer to a lower generation is an additional generation-skipping transfer, unless certain exemptions apply. The GST Tax is in addition to any then applicable Estate Taxes that may be due at each generation.

Every individual has a sizable exemption from the application of the GST Tax (“GST Tax Exemption”). This GST Tax Exemption works much like the Applicable Exclusion from Estate Tax liability.  As such, if their documents are properly drafted, an individual and his or her spouse may pass up to twice their individual GST Tax Exemption amount without the application of the GST Tax through their Wills or by way of an inter-vivos trust.  In addition, if a trust is set up which contains their GST Tax Exemption amount (or less), and an individual applies his or her GST Tax Exemption to the trust in a manner which completely exempts the property in the trust from GST Tax, then that trust will be permitted to skip generations.  This means that the income and/or principal of a properly drafted trust can be used for the benefit of an individual’s children for life, then the children’s children, then the children’s grandchildren, etc…  The number of generations that can be benefitted is limited only by a complicated state law known as the rule against perpetuities (which is beyond the parameters of this discussion).

Thus, although the GST Tax adds another complication to an individual’s estate plan, the GST Tax Exemption is likely to shelter many people’s estates from its application.  In addition, individuals who have larger estates may undertake proper planning to benefit their children, grandchildren and potentially their great-grandchildren.