Gift Letter Definition

What Is a Gift Letter?

A gift letter is a piece of legal, written correspondence explicitly stating that money received from a friend or relative is a gift. Gift letters for tax purposes often come into play when a borrower has received assistance in making a down payment on a new home or other real estate property. Such letters state that the money received is not expected to be paid back in any way, shape, or form.

Key Takeaways

  • A gift letter is a piece of legal, written correspondence explicitly stating that money received from a friend or relative is a gift.
  • Gift letters are important when it comes to paying a real estate down payment, for example, because lenders tend to frown upon borrowers using additional borrowed money for a down payment on a home or other property. However, gifts are acceptable.
  • Gift letters may be required by a financial institution before they approve issuing a loan.
  • For 2022, the estate and gift tax exemption is $12,060,000 per individual. For 2023, the estate and gift tax exemption is $12,920,000.
  • Gift letters usually contain information about the donor, a statement that the funds given are not to be repaid, and the donor's signature.

How Gift Letters Work

Gift letters are important because, in general, lenders tend to frown upon borrowers using additional borrowed money for a down payment on a home or other property. "Gifted" money, however, is a different story. A gift letter specifically references the fact that money is a gift and not a loan. The gift-giver must directly write the letter for it to have any validity. The letter also often discloses the relationship between the gift giver and receiver.

A gift can be broadly defined to include a sale, exchange, or other transfer of property from one person (the donor) to another (the recipient). Common forms of gifts include:

  • Cash, check, or other tangible items
  • Transferring a title to stocks or real property without receiving anything in exchange of value
  • Forgiving debt
  • Below-market loans

All gifts that exceed an annually determined amount are subject to income taxes if they are made to someone other than a spouse or qualified charity.

Gift letters are legally binding and must be signed by at least the donor (who does not expect to be repaid).

Gift Letter and Additional Gifting Strategies

Several gifting strategies rest on gift letters. For example, inter vivos gifting occurs while an individual is still alive and can reduce the taxable estate since the individual no longer owns the property when they die (although inter vivos gifts may still be subject to taxes if made three years before that individual's death). For 2023, the estate and gift tax exemption is $12,920,000 per individual, up from $12,060,000 in 2022.

Many individuals choose to gift assets that will appreciate substantially in the future, such as real estate, particularly if it hasn't increased in value already. This excludes its present worth from the donor's estate and also eliminates future appreciation from the estate. In contrast, gifting assets that have already increased significantly in value is less advantageous, as the recipient will have the same tax basis (carryover basis) in the property as the donor.

If the recipient were to inherit that asset rather than receive it as a gift during the donor's life, the asset's tax basis would be stepped up to the fair market value of the property at the time of death.

Gift Letters and Mortgages

Gift letters often heavily relate to real estate transactions. Consider a situation where a parent provides $100,000 of capital to their child for a down payment for a house. In this situation, the lender will likely want security that this money is a one-sided transaction that is not to be repaid. As part of qualifying for a home loan, the lender may require both the donor and recipient to sign the letter agreeing that the funds are a gift.

A lender may request a gift letter if it recognizes abnormal or large transactions being deposited into a borrower's account.

Contents of a Gift Letter

There is no singular, universally accepted template for gift letters. In general, a party that requires a gift letter will often require the following contents:

  • The name of the donor.
  • The name of the recipient.
  • The contact information of the donor including the address, phone number, and relationship to you.
  • The exact dollar amount of the gift. This may be an estimated value for non-cash transactions that must often be substantiated with supporting documentation.
  • The date the gift was given and/or received.
  • A statement designating that the funds are a gift, not to be repaid, with no additional remunerations.

Do Gift Letters Get Reported to the IRS?

The IRS often requires written substantiation for charitable contributions. These letters are often issued relating to donations or items given away for free without any return considerations.

Why Do Lenders Require Gift Letters?

A lender for a home loan is in a position to evaluate the financial risk of the borrower. There is a substantial difference between a large gift or a large loan. A lender will require a gift letter as part of this evaluation to see what additional financial obligations the borrower has and what their extenuating financial position is.

Are Gift Letters Legally Binding?

Yes, a gift letter is legally binding. The information on the letter is used and relied upon by multiple parties, and both the donor and recipient are expected to be bound to the terms of the gift letter.

The Bottom Line

A gift letter is a written, signed document that outlines that a lump sum of given by one party does not need to be repaid. This letter is often required by lenders when issuing mortgages or home loans, as individuals may be more likely to receive large sums of money in advance of their real estate purchase.

Article Sources
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  1. Internal Revenue Service. "What's New - Estate and Gift Tax."

  2. Internal Revenue Service. "Estate Tax."

  3. Internal Revenue Service. "Frequently Asked Questions on Gift Taxes."

  4. Cornell Law School Legal Information Institute. "26 U.S. Code § 2035 - Adjustments for Certain Gifts Made Within 3 Years of Decedent's Death."

  5. Internal Revenue Service. "Instructions for Form 709 (2021)."

  6. Internal Revenue Service. "FAQs - Gifts & Inheritances."

  7. Internal Revenue Service. "Publication 551 (12/2018), Basis of Assets."

  8. Internal Revenue Service. "Property (Basis, Sale of Home, Etc.)"

  9. Internal Revenue Service. "Charitable Contributions Substantiation and Disclosure Requirements," Page 1.

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