Thursday, February 18, 2021

Will the Estate Tax Valuation Regulations Return?


Over the past few decades, valuation discounting through the use of family-owned business entities has become a popular estate and gift tax planning technique. If structured properly, the courts have routinely validated discounts ranging from 10 to 40 percent. Valuation discounting has proven to be a very effective strategy for transferring wealth to subsequent generations. It is a particularly useful technique with respect to the transfer of small family businesses and farming/ranching operations. Similar, but lower, valuation discounts can also be achieved with respect to the transfer of fractional interests in real estate.

With the new Administration and Congress in place, will estate tax valuation regulations be put in place that diminish or eliminate the valuation discounting technique?  It’s a distinct possibility.  If it happens, it will remove a significant planning tool for higher wealth estates and will increase the transfer tax cost of transitioning certain farms and ranches to the next generation.

Estate tax valuation discounts – it’s the topic of today’s post.

Valuation and The Concept of Discounting

The value of an asset for federal estate and gift tax purposes is “fair market value.”  For assets traded on an established market or that have a readily ascertainable value, the value for gift and estate tax purposes is their fair market value on the date of the transfer or death as determined by the established market or the otherwise readily ascertainable value.  For other assets, such as interests in a closely-held (non-publicly trade) farm or ranch.  Fair market value is more difficult to determine.  For this type of property, fair market value is defined as “the price at which the property would change hands between a willing buyer and a willing seller, neither being under any compulsion to buy or sell, and both having reasonable knowledge of relevant facts.” Treas. Reg. §§20.2031-1(b); 25.2512-1; Rev. Rul. 59-60, 1959-1 C.B. 237.  State law controls the determination of what has been transferred in the valuation process. 

The concept of “fair market value” under the “willing buyer-willing seller” test must necessarily take into account a value reduction to reflect either non-marketability of an interest in a closely-held business as well as any lack of control (minority position) that the interest has. A willing buyer simply would not pay a pro-rata portion of an entity’s value for an interest that is not a controlling interest or is not marketable because it is not publicly traded.  Under this standard, it is immaterial whether the buyer and seller are related – the test is based on a hypothetical buyer and seller. Thus, there is no attribution of ownership between family members that would change a minority interest into a majority interest.

Proposed Regulations

Background.  The two primary tax Code provisions that bear on the valuation issue are I.R.C. §2036 and I.R.C. §2704.  I.R.C. §2036 states that, “[t]he value of the gross estate shall include the value of all property to the extent of any interest therein of which the decedent has at any time made a transfer (except in case of a bona fide sale for an adequate and full consideration in money or money’s worth), by trust or otherwise, under which he has retained for his life or for any period not ascertainable without reference to his death or for any period which does not in fact end before his death— (1) the possession or enjoyment of, or the right to the income from, the property, or (2) the right, either alone or in conjunction with any person, to designate the persons who shall possess or enjoy the property or the income therefrom.”  I.R.C. §2704 address how to value intra-family transfers of interests in corporations and partnerships subject to lapsing voting or liquidation rights and restrictions on liquidation.  I.R.C. §2704(a)(1) generally provides that, if there is a lapse of any voting or liquidation right in a corporation or a partnership and the individual holding the right immediately before the lapse and members of the individual’s family hold, both before and after the lapse, control of the entity, the lapse will be treated as a transfer by the individual by gift, or a transfer which is includible in the gross estate, whichever is applicable.  Combined, these two Code sections govern transfers of property where the transferor retains certain rights over the property where a bona fide sale for adequate consideration wasn’t received, and the intra-family transfers.  Both of those types of transactions are often a part of estate and business planning for farming and ranching operations.

2016 proposal.  Near the tail-end of the Obama/Biden administration, the Treasury issued proposed regulations (REG-163113-02) that would have significantly curtailed the ability to take valuation discounts on intrafamily transfers of business interests (e.g., discounts for lack of marketability and minority interests) involving both I.R.C. §2036 and I.R.C. §2704.  Specifically, the proposed regulations would treat certain transfers occurring within three years of death that result in the lapse of a liquidation right as transfers occurring at death for purposes of I.R.C. §2704(a). At that time, the IRS explained that the regulations were intended to address estate planning strategies that avoid the application of I.R.C. §2704. The proposed regulations added a three-year rule to narrow the exception to the definition of a lapse of a liquidation right to transfers that occur three or more years prior to the transferor’s death and that do not restrict or eliminate the rights associated with the ownership of the transferred interest.  The proposed regulation was issued by itself, and not also as a temporary regulation, and did not have any provision stating that a taxpayer could rely on it before it is issued as a final regulation.

The effective date of the proposed regulation reaches back to include valuations associated with any lapse of any right created on or after October 8, 1990 occurring on or after the date the proposed regulations is published in the Federal Register as a final regulation. This would make it nearly impossible to avoid the application of the final regulation by various estate planning techniques.

IRS concern.  So, why proposed regulations?  What is the IRS concerned about?  While the IRS has won a number of court cases involving discounting in the context of family limited partnerships (FLPs), it has lost some very significant ones.  The courts have validated discounts associated with FLPs where the FLP was formed for legitimate business purposes and state law formalities have been followed closely.   From my sources both inside and outside of the IRS, the IRS is apparently still encountering situations involving FLPs that are not established in accordance with state law, don’t adequately document the business reasons for forming the FLP and have inaccurate or incomplete asset appraisals.  They think that the revenue loss is large as a result of the technical non-compliance with I.R.C. §§2036 and 2704.   Consequently, the new proposed regulations eliminate the ability to value an interest in an entity (in the aggregate) at an amount less than the value of the value of the property had it not been contributed to the entity.  The IRS view is that the lower value of the property as contained in the entity is an inappropriate way to avoid transfer taxes. 

Elimination of the proposed regulations.  Before the proposed regulations were finalized, President Trump issued Executive Order (EO) 13789.  In that EO, President Trump directed the Treasury Department to review all significant tax regulations issued since January 1, 2016. The Treasury Department was directed to identify regulations that may be “unduly burdensome or complex,” and propose actions to mitigate those burdens.  The Treasury Department identified the proposed valuation regulations as unduly burdensome or complex, and “would have hurt family-owned and operated businesses by limiting valuation discounts.” Additionally, the regulations “would have made it difficult and costly for a family to transfer their businesses to the next generation.” The Treasury Department also noted stakeholders’ concerns that the regulations were vague and would be burdensome to administer.

In withdrawing the proposed regulations, (NPRM REG-163113-02), the Treasury commented that the regulations were “unworkable” and stated that, “it is unclear whether the valuation rules of the proposed regulations would have even succeeded in curtailing artificial valuation discounts.”


The Biden Treasury Department could revive the withdrawn proposed regulations and potentially finalize them sometime in 2021.  If that happens, the ability to generate valuation discounts for the transfer of family-owned entities such as farm and ranches would be seriously impacted. 

Clearly, the Treasury can write regulations that specify that certain restrictions on transfer can be disregarded when determining the value of an interest in an entity to a family member of the transferor.  However, without legislation allowing it, the IRS cannot simply ignore discounts for lack of marketability or lack of control (minority interest).  Long-standing interpretations of I.R.C. §2704 (and I.R.C. §2036) by the Tax Court and the Circuit Courts support valuation discounts when the transaction is done properly.  As a result, the Courts may have a different view than the IRS/Treasury with respect to the proposed regulations based on the longstanding Congressional intent to allow discounts in a family context. Having discretion does not mean that Treasury has discretion to determine value as it pleases.


The possibility of the valuation regulations returning puts an emphasis on examining estate and transition plans now.  It’s a good idea to have a wealth transfer strategy in place.  While the political margins are close in the House and Senate, the Treasury and IRS could significantly alter the planning landscape without any need for congressional approval. 

The valuation discounting issue merits close attention.

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