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"If my wife and I gift her the maximum per year for 5 years, does she pay any taxes on that?"

A recipient never pays tax on a gift, the grantor (giver) is responsible for the tax. The best way to avoid gift tax is to simply not to give more in any one year than the annual gift exclusion, presently at $11,000. This exclusion amount goes up from time to time, it will next go to $12,000, but we don't know in what year that will be. I mention the increase because you mentioned giving over a five year period and there is a pretty good chance that it will be raised to $12,000 some time in the next five years. So you and your wife can presently give your mother $22,000 a year. You can do this one of two ways to get both you and your wife's annual gift exclusion. First, is to write two checks, one signed by you and the other from your wife, each for $11,000 or less. I normally utilize separate accounts (one joint) to do this, but I actually think it could be from the same account as long as the checks were signed each giving spouse. The second way to use the two gift exclusions is to write just one check and then file a gift tax return where your wife can elect half the gift. I prefer the first method of using two checks as to me it is much simpler.

"Is a gift the best way to get money to her?"

Probably yes. As long as you don't want or need to give her more than $22,000 a year then it should work fine. If $22,000 a year is not enough, then some other options might include giving more and using up some of your universal exclusion (sorry I can't think of the correct term for this right now); buying her house; or hiring her to say take care of the grandkids. The $22,000 annual gifts are probably the simplest and best way to go in most cases.

"If that money, and the proceeds, are left when she passes away, does it pass to me tax free (assuming an estate small enough to not be subject to taxes)?"

Assuming she leaves it to you! It would have to be either spelled out by the will or in a financial account that would go to you outside of the will such as a transfer on death designation. If you gift her stock you will not get a step up in basis upon inheriting the stock from her if you gifted it within a certain time period - one year I think.
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