Why Wait to Give Away Your Money?

Early gifts give seniors a chance to enjoy seeing their cash at work.

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Parents and grandparents with money to spare are no longer waiting until death to pass on their wealth. Instead, they're increasingly handing it over to their adult kids while they're still around to see how it's spent—and, in some cases, lend a hand.

Some 8.1 percent of American families have net worth in excess of $1 million, according to the Federal Reserve, and almost 2 percent have assets of over $2 million, the amount that is currently excluded from federal estate tax. (In 2009, the excluded amount rises to $3.5 million. There will be no federal estate tax in 2010, after which the excluded amount will return to $1 million, unless Congress acts.) Financial advisers say that in addition to the tax benefits that come from gradually transferring that wealth by reducing the estate to stay under the tax-exempt amount at death, well-to-do individuals—and even those with estates far under the million-dollar mark—are eager to share the money while they are still alive to see its effects. "It allows senior generations to see how kids and grandkids are using those funds and to get enjoyment out of knowing how the money is spent," says Mary Ann Sisco, national wealth adviser for JP Morgan's Private Client Services.

Lisa Tichenor of Dallas advises a foundation created by her son Taylor in honor of her late son, Willie, who died of bone cancer when he was 19. The money, which originally came from a family business, was given to her sons when they were young. Sharing that money now, instead of waiting to pass it on at death, allows her to spend time with Taylor and work on charitable projects with him, she says. "There is a lot of joy in working to-gether for someone else's good when you have everything you need," she says.

Reality check. Sally Hurme, an attorney with AARP's consumer protection unit, helped make her recently married daughter's down payment on a house. But she warns that parents first need to make sure they have enough money to fund their own expenses. "People today are living much longer than they used to live, and they may have very high health costs," she says.

Giving money away early can serve to teach adult children how to handle wealth, says Jeremy White, a certified public accountant and coauthor of Splitting Heirs: Giving Money and Things to Your Children Without Ruining Their Lives. "You may be able to give an inheritance sampler," he says, "and see how the adult child handles that. You're around while you're living to give them guidance if asked."

Seniors interested in funding education for young grandchildren can put money into a 529 college savings plan, which is shielded from taxes on earnings. While the money still counts as a gift for tax purposes, says Rande Spiegelman, vice president of financial planning for the Schwab Center for Financial Research, it has the benefit of letting donors control how it's used or even change the beneficiary.

Parents and grandparents interested in retaining control over how their money is spent can also add conditions to trust agreements. "You never know what life will hold for those beneficiaries, but a lot of clients like to try to impart some of their wishes," says Marianne Kayan, an estate-planning attorney in Bethesda, Md. She says they try to promote "good behavior" by specifying that the trust distributions should go toward education or that they won't go to adults who are not working, although the wording often leaves some leeway to allow for full-time parents, for example.

A recent Bank of America survey of wealthy individuals found that just over 70 percent discuss philanthropy with their children and about 20 percent give their children money to donate. "[Clients] find that philanthropy is the glue that holds the family together. It's a way to share family stories and values," says Eileen Wilhem, managing director of Bank of America's philanthropic management. From the charity recipients to the adult children who help make the gifts and the parents who are still around to see how their money is disbursed, it's an arrangement with multiple beneficiaries.