Helping Adult Children Financially: Part 1 - The Basics

If you’ve decided to help your adult child financially, it makes sense to consider the various aspects of the giving process. These things should be agreed upon (in writing, if possible) at the outset.

  • Purpose – Are the funds provided for general use or for a specific purpose? Does the payer receive an accounting of how the funds were used?
  • Amount – How much will the payment(s) be?
  • Frequency – Is this a one-time occurrence, or are there periodic payments, such as monthly?
  • Duration – If periodic payments, how long will they last? If it’s a “one-time” payment, what is the possibility of another such payment in the future?
  • Payment Method – How will payment be made? Cash, check, bank transfer, or some other method? Also, will the recipient receive the help directly, or does the parent pay a third party? Example: Paying for an adult child’s mobile phone under a family plan.
  • Gift or Loan – Is the financial help a gift or a loan that will be repaid? If it’s a loan, how much interest, if any, will be calculated, and what is the repayment plan?
  • Medium – Is the help in the form of money or something tangible like a car or real estate?

Tax Considerations

If parents give something of value to their child (or anyone else for that matter) and receive nothing in return, the IRS defines this as a gift. In 1932, Congress enacted the Federal gift tax “To assist in the collection of the income and estate taxes and prevent their avoidance through the splitting of estates during the lifetime of a taxpayer.” Simply put, the tax was intended to prevent the very wealthy from dodging taxes on their estates after death.

However, the gift tax is typically a non-issue for most people. As of 2023, a U.S. taxpayer can gift up to $17,000 yearly to as many people as they like without reporting to the IRS. The lifetime limit is $12.92 million, meaning adding up all gifts throughout a giver’s life must exceed this amount before the tax applies. Married couples can each gift these amounts, so the tax threshold for them is even higher. (Note: If gift tax is due, the giver, not the receiver, pays the gift tax. Also, a recipient pays no income tax on a gift.)

A gift can also be something other than money. These can be things like:

  • Vehicles
  • Real estate
  • Shares of stock
  • Fine art or collectibles
  • Loans that are forgiven, interest-free, or below market rates
  • Transferred insurance policy benefits
  • Some annuity transfers
  • Digital assets like non-fungible tokens (NFTs) and virtual currencies like cryptocurrencies and stablecoins

So why should the average person even be concerned about the gift tax? A study by showed that 45% of parents provide some form of financial support to at least one of their adult children, with the average monthly support amount being $1,400. That adds up to $16,800 per year, so exceeding the $17,000 gift tax exclusion amount would be a risk for those on the higher side of the average.

However, even for these generous parents, the only downside for most will be the requirement to file IRS Form 709 for the year during which the excess occurred, and very few of these taxpayers will ever exceed the $12.92 million lifetime exclusion.

Also, unlimited money or other valuables are exempt from gift tax calculations in these situations:

  • Funds exchanged between a married couple who are U.S. citizens.
  • Money directly paid by the giver to institutions for someone else’s healthcare or tuition expenses.
  • Contributions to political organizations don’t qualify as gifts either.

Trust Funds

A trust fund is a way to hold assets (e.g., money, property, a business) to control their transfer and usage, as well as provide tax benefits and other financial advantages.

Establishing a trust requires three players:

Grantor – sets up the trust for their assets.

Beneficiary(s) – for whom the assets are being managed.

Trustee – a neutral third-party individual or organization that manages the trust assets.

Usually, a trust is set up as part of an estate plan stipulating how a person’s assets will be handled after death. Most consider a will the primary document needed to direct asset distribution upon death. A trust works in concert with a will to properly handle complex estate situations. Also, a trust can go into effect before death if the grantor can no longer competently make their own decisions.

When the trust is activated, the trustee fulfills the grantor’s wishes. These can include distributing funds at set times in the beneficiary’s life or for specific expenses like education.

Grantors also set up trusts to shield assets from creditors, reduce estate taxes, and avoid probate, the legal process undertaken to determine how assets will be distributed after death if there is no will or trust established.

Trust funds come in two flavors: revocable and irrevocable.

Revocable Trust Fund – this type gives more flexibility while the grantor is alive. Once assets are placed into it, the grantor can make changes before death. A revocable trust fund is a popular way to transfer assets to children or grandchildren.

Irrevocable Trust Fund – these trust funds are intended to be virtually impossible to change or revoke. Once signed, the grantor no longer has control of the assets. One situation where this is advantageous is when an elderly or otherwise disabled person gifts assets to beneficiaries, making the grantor eligible for Medicaid-funded long-term care.

Situations for financially helping adult children can vary from simple arrangements to complicated agreements. Consider enlisting the assistance of qualified legal and financial professionals if your situation is more complex. The cost and effort to craft a solid plan for both parent and adult child will be well worth it.