Q. My niece is in her mid-20s and working part time, making about $15,000 per year. Can I give her a gift of $5,500 to put into a Roth IRA without increasing her taxes for the year? -- Kathy, Tucson
A. There's a lot of confusion about gift taxes, but few people ever run afoul of the limits. So you can relax—your niece won’t face a higher tax bill because of your generosity.
Under IRS rules, you are allowed to give as much as $14,000 per person per year to as many people as you like. That exclusion amount holds for 2016 and 2017.
“Gifts that are under the $14,000 limit are not taxable to the recipient or to you,” says Tom Mingone, a financial adviser and managing partner of Capital Management Group. When it's under that amount, you don’t even have to notify the IRS about your gift.
Married couples can jointly give twice as much—each spouse is permitted to give $14,000 to the same individual, for a total gift of $28,000. If your niece is married, you and a spouse could give the couple up to a total of $56,000.
What happens if you give a gift of more than $14,000? You’ll have to notify the IRS by filing Form 709. Even so, it’s highly unlikely you will owe any tax, says Mingone.
High levels of giving are mainly an issue for estate taxes after your death. But for your estate to trigger a tax bill, the total amount you give over your lifetime, when added to the assets in your estate, must exceed the lifetime exclusion, which is $5.45 million for 2016 and $5.49 million for 2017. Your estate would only owe taxes on any amount that exceeds that threshold. Very few estates—just 0.2% in 2013—are hit by taxes.
So feel free to keep funding your niece’s IRA—you can put in another $5,500 in 2017, as long as she has earned income of at least that amount. And a Roth is the right idea. Since she's probably in a low tax bracket now, the value of the tax deduction for a traditional IRA is minimal. But she’s likely to be in a higher tax bracket later on, which will make tax-free withdrawals from a Roth far more valuable.