So, you want your family to pay more Inheritance Tax on your death? How very public spirited of you! HMRC will take your money, the chancellor will watch the Exchequer grow – but your executors won’t be getting any thank you notes for your post-death generosity.

Now, let’s be sensible and take a look at what you can do in your lifetime to reduce the amount of IHT your family will have to pay when you die. An opening caveat – when does proper tax planning transgress into unacceptable avoidance or even evasion? The answer: who at this time really knows? Not even HMRC seem to know with any degree of certainty and the expected introduction of a GAAR (General Anti-Abuse Rule) will only further muddy the waters.

We rely on the rule of law and judicial interpretation when it comes to tax planning – it is this even-handed justice, after all, that protects us from fiscal chaos.

The law currently grants four major 100% exemptions from IHT:

  1. Spousal transfers – subject to your spouse being domiciled or deemed domiciled in the UK
  2. Business Property Relief
  3. Agricultural Property Relief
  4. Gifts to charities

Everything else – subject to a nil rate band of £325,000 – is chargeable at 40%, and your inheritors must pay any tax to HMRC six months from the month of your death.
If it isn’t paid, it collects interest – proving that HMRC can get blood out of a stone!
If there are insufficient liquid assets in your estate to pay the tax, then your Executors will be required to personally borrow capital before being granted probate. It’s only when probate is granted that they will have power of assets in the estate – a chicken and egg situation – and in some cases, a nasty surprise for the Executors.

If, when you die, you plan to pass your estate to your spouse tax free, there is a little known threat lying like an unseen reef just beneath the surface, ready to rip a hole in the side of your IHT strategy. Be aware that the spousal 100% exemption does not apply if the surviving spouse is not domiciled or not deemed domiciled in the UK at the date of your death (i.e. resident in the UK for 17 of the previous 20 years). Instead of a 100% exemption, the exempt amount of the legacy is reduced to £55,000, with anything above that figure being charged at a massive 40%. So if you’re married to a non-UK national and he or she does not qualify under the 17/20 year rule, you are heading for that reef. Domicile is a very complex topic, so if you think you have a problem you should seek specialist advice.

Business Property Relief (BPR) and Agricultural Property Relief (APR) are mutually exclusive reliefs; you can’t have both on the same assets, but you can have them both on different values or parts of assets. Imagine a farmer obtains planning permission on 20 acres of his 500 acre farm and then dies without disposing of the 20 acres. The actual value of 500 acres is £3.25 million, but the development value of 20 acres would be £10 million. His estate could rely – subject to certain conditions – on getting APR on £3.25 million and BPR on £10 million, resulting in the full value of £13.25 million being received by the estate’s beneficiaries free of tax. Those same beneficiaries could, if they wished, then sell the development land at full market value (£13.25 million) and pay no Capital Gains Tax – not a bad result and totally legal.

Making regular cash gifts to family and friends throughout your lifetime is another way to reduce the overall net worth of your property, and so prevent a mammoth IHT bill. You can, under current legislation, gift £3,000 a year (as one or several gifts). If you fail to use this exemption in one year you are allowed to carry it forward to the next year, allowing a gift of up to £6,000. Additionally, you can give small gifts of up to £250 as often as you like to as many people as you like. Parents can gift up to £5,000 to their child as a wedding or civil partnership gift, and grandparents can give £2,500. So being generous with cash gifts to your loved ones throughout your lifetime will not only benefit them in the short term, but will also serve to help reduce your own future exposure. However, be careful if considering ‘gifting’ your private residence to your children as this has many complicated tax implications – make sure you seek specialist guidance first and foremost.

IHT is a legislative minefield, and proper tax advice, on all but the simplest estates, could produce huge savings for your loved ones. If in doubt, seek help from a specialist who will advise you on the best ways to minimise the sum you will be gifting to the taxman on your death.