Timing of a Gift

When doing planned gifting, it is imperative to have the gifts completed on the schedule that you want otherwise you may accidentally gift too much one year, causing a tax, or you may gift too little, and lose your annual gift tax exclusion for the year.

Therefore, you must know the answer to this question: When is a gift complete for purposes of the federal gift tax?

Unfortunately, tax law is much like a magic trick – what may appear to be true is not always true. If you give someone cash, is the gift is complete the moment the other person receives the cash? What about a check? What about a transfer of real estate by deed?

Would it make a difference if, when giving you the cash, I told you that you could only spend it on a new car, otherwise I want it back? What if there was not enough cash in the account to cover the check? What if after making the deed I held it and did not show it to anyone else or record it? Things get trickier then…

Three elements are required to establish a gift:

  1. donative intent on the part of the Donor;
  2. an actual or symbolic delivery of the subject matter of the gift; and
  3. an absolute and irrevocable surrender by the donor of ownership and dominion over the subject matter of the gift, at least to the extent practicable or possible, considering the nature of the thing to be given.” (Jennings v. Cutler, 288 N.J. Super 553 (App. Div. 1996)

Donative Intent

Donative intent means that the person making the gift (or the Donor) believes in his own mind that he is giving something away. For example, if I give you cash, but I expect you to repay it, it is not a gift – even if I do not tell you at the time that I want to be repaid. Since I expect to be repaid, I do not have the proper mindset, or intent, to qualify this as a gift.

The moment that I no longer wish to be repaid, then that transfer can be a completed gift if the other requirements are met.

Often times practitioners make positive use of this intent requirement. We can draft a promissory note for a parent transferring a large sum of money to a child, whereby the child agrees to pay back $X per year. The parent can then forgive that annual repayment, thereby completing a gift as to $X.

This technique is commonly used by a parent who wishes to help a child make a down payment on a house, but does not want to use up their lifetime $1,000,000 gift tax exemption. The payments of $X can be structured to be less than or equal to the annual exclusion amount, thereby passing on additional money free of gift and/or estate taxes.

Actual or Symbolic Delivery of a Gift

To have actual or symbolic delivery is important because it puts the person receiving the gift (the donee) on notice that they are receiving something.

Let’s go back to the example of a person making a deed for the benefit of their child and then keeping hidden away from the world. It would be similar to make saying to myself that I’m going to give each of my blog readers $100,000, putting the money in my sock drawer, but not telling you about it. I may have the proper intent, but unless there is some further act, it is not enough.

What further act is necessary puts us into a gray, mushy area of the law. I do not physically have to give you the gift. Some sort of act in furtherance of the gift is enough. Three situations that come up frequently are the writing of a check, the preparation of a deed and the transfer of a business ownership interest, so I will discuss them a bit further.

If you write a check to another person,

The gift becomes complete when you’ve gone that extra step to ensure the other person receives the check. This could mean physically handing it to them or putting it in the mailbox. If there is not enough money to cover the check in your account, the gift would not be complete until there is enough money in the account to cover it. (This gets into another gray area however if bank covers your check.) If, however, you tell the donee not to cash it yet, and they obey, then the gift is not complete until they receive permission to cash the check.

For the gift of real estate,

The donor does not necessarily have to record the deed, but the recording of a deed clearly proves the gift was made. (see Fischer v. Gerndt, N.J. Eq. 53, 55 (Ch.1922).

Anything short of the deed being recorded puts us in yet another mushy gray area of the law. You could give the deed to the donee to record, which would complete the gift, but then take out a mortgage, negating the gift. You could give the deed to the donee’s agent, which would complete the gift, but then sell it that same afternoon to another party, negating the gift. Ultimately, it would be an after the fact determination.

Accordingly, when doing gift planning, you should not wait until the end of the year to transfer real estate, because it can take up to a month to record the deed. As stated in the beginning, timing is everything for proper gift planning.

For a gift of a business interest

The donor does not necessarily have to enter something in the stock book or file something with the state, but doing so clearly completes the gift. A letter by the donor to the donee stating, “I hereby give you 10% of XYZ business” could be enough, unless the donor turns around quickly and sells it to someone else. As with the deed, for proper planning, it is best just to take the appropriate steps to make the gift clearly complete.

Absolute and Irrevocable Surrender of Gifted Property

The final requirement to making a gift is “an absolute and irrevocable surrender by the donor of ownership and dominion over the subject matter of the gift, at least to the extent practicable or possible, considering the nature of the thing to be given”. 

It is actually a mouthful but easy to show by example. If I tell you that you can have my art collection when I am done with it – it is not a gift until I tell you I’m done with it. In the example at the beginning, the gift of cash subject to the fact that you can only use it for a new car, the gift is not complete until you either use it for the new car, or I change my mind and agree you can have it no matter what.

Generally, you have to give up control of what you are gifting. When you have done that, this element is satisfied.

For more on the importance of planned gifting, see: The Importance of Planned Gifting

Note: Thanks to Paul Kostro for keeping me up to date on much of this information. Paul’s Blog can be found at: http://www.kostrolaw.com/NJFamilyIssues/