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Sunday September 19, 2021

Case of the Week

Living on the Edge, Part 6


Rhea Jones, 75, lives in a beautiful coastal town in northern California. Rhea's home occupies three magnificent acres of bluff property that overlooks the crashing waves of the Pacific. Since her home sits just steps away from the dramatic cliffs, Rhea frequently jokes to her friends about her "living on the edge" lifestyle.

Rhea's husband of 50 years, John, built the custom home 10 years ago. It was truly the realization of their lifelong dream. Unfortunately, John passed away unexpectedly five years ago. Now, Rhea lives alone in the large home. Nevertheless, Rhea is looking forward to spending her remaining days in this lovely home. Not surprisingly, she frequently plays host to her children, grandchildren and friends.

Rhea is an active philanthropist. In fact, she spends three days a week volunteering with local charities. While very wealthy and philanthropic, Rhea makes only modest yearly gifts. However, she intends to make a substantial bequest upon her death. Specifically, Rhea plans on distributing her entire estate to her children and grandchildren, except for her cliff-side home. Rhea's estate plan provides that the home, which is worth $3 million, passes to John and Rhea's favorite charity upon her death.

However, at a recent estate planning presentation, Rhea discovered the benefits of a gift of a remainder interest in a personal residence. In particular, she liked the potential significant tax savings and the home's avoidance of the probate process. Also, because the gift is irrevocable, the local charity would recognize and honor Rhea for her generous gift at the annual fundraising gala. Of course, Rhea would retain the right to live in her home for the rest of her life, which is an absolute requirement to any potential gift arrangement.


Rhea is very excited about this gift arrangement, but she has many questions. Before she commits to the gift plan, she wants to address several issues. In order to compute the charitable income tax deduction, Rhea is required to determine the estimated useful life of her home. How does she do this? Are there some rules regarding this determination? What are the four basic options to make this determination?


In determining the value of a gift of a remainder interest in a personal residence or farm, depreciation must be taken into account if any part of the contributed property is subject to exhaustion, wear and tear or obsolescence. See Sec. 170A-12(b)(1). The tax code requires the straight-line method of depreciation. In order to compute depreciation, a donor must determine the estimated useful life and salvage value of the building.

"Estimated useful life" is the estimated period of time that an individual's property may reasonably be expected to be useful. In determining this time period, the "expected use" of the property must be taken into account. See Sec. 170A-12(d). Lastly, the useful life "clock" starts ticking at the time of a gift and not at the time the property is built.

Option #4: Finally, at the option of an individual, the estimated useful life can be an asset depreciation period that is within the permissible asset depreciation range for the relevant asset guideline class. See Sec. 170A-12(d). In other words, an individual can borrow a depreciation useful life recovery period and use it for purposes of determining the building's estimated useful life. For example, the depreciation recovery period for residential rental property is 27.5 years. Thus, when computing the charitable deduction for a gift of a remainder interest in a personal residence, Rhea could simply use 27.5 years for the building's estimated useful life.

The option to select a depreciation recovery period for residential rental property when determining the useful life of residential non-rental property is very favorable for the government. In exchange, this option creates, in essence, a "safe harbor" for individuals. In short, this option is very safe, but may cause an individual to claim a charitable income tax deduction that is less than what they may be entitled to claim.

First, it assumes an unfavorable characteristic upon the individual's building – that it will be used as rental property. Most will agree that rental property, in general, suffers more wear and tear than non-rental property. Yet, in most cases, an individual will remain in the personal residence until death or other disposition. Furthermore, the tax regulations specifically state that the estimated useful life shall take into account the "expected use" of the property. See Sec. 170A-12(d). However, by borrowing the depreciation recovery period of residential rental property, an individual is losing the added benefit of the "actual use" of the property. Thus, an individual is settling for a shorter useful life determination than provided by the tax regulations or real-life experiences.

Second and most importantly, this option results in a smaller charitable deduction. For instance, depending greatly on the land and building value in each situation, the charitable deduction may shrink about 2-5% in comparison to a 45-year useful life. If the overall property value is $100,000, the charitable deduction may decrease by a modest $2,000 - $5,000. However, if the overall property value is $1,000,000, the charitable deduction may decrease by $20,000 - $50,000. Therefore, an individual may potentially lose significant tax savings if the 27.5-year useful life is selected.

Yet, as stated above, the "safe harbor" 27.5-year useful life selection is a very safe and conservative choice. So, if the size of the charitable deduction is less important or the charitable deduction is unable to be utilized, the 27.5-year useful life selection is an excellent option.

Thus, with four different options to choose from, Rhea visits with her attorney again to discuss the best option for her situation.

Editor's Note: There are four primary options for determining estimated useful life. This case study addresses the fourth option. Options one through three appeared in Parts 4 and 5 of this series.

Published February 19, 2021
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Previous Articles

Living on the Edge, Part 5

Living on the Edge, Part 4

Living on the Edge, Part 3

Living on the Edge, Part 2

Living on the Edge, Part 1