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What You Should Know About Estate Tax

What You Should Know About Estate Tax

Estate tax, also known as inheritance tax or death tax, is a tax imposed by the government on the value of an individual’s estate at the time of their death. It is a tax on the transfer of wealth from one generation to the next. The estate tax can have a significant impact on an individual’s wealth and asset distribution to their heirs. In this article, we’ll dive into the details of estate tax, including the current state of the tax and its potential implications for taxpayers.

What is Estate Tax?

Estate tax is a tax on the transfer of property from the deceased to the living. The tax is calculated based on the value of the estate at the time of the owner’s death. The estate tax applies to estates worth above a certain threshold, which is adjusted periodically to account for inflation. Currently, the threshold in the United States is $11.7 million per person, or $23.4 million for a married couple. Any estate value that exceeds this amount is subject to estate tax, which varies based on the total estate value.

Who Pays Estate Tax?

Estate taxes are paid by the estate, not the beneficiaries or heirs. The estate is responsible for paying taxes on the value of the assets included in the estate. This includes real estate, investment accounts, business ownership, and personal property. The tax is paid from the decedent’s assets before they are distributed to their heirs. If the estate cannot pay the tax liability, then the heirs may be required to pay the balance.

The estate tax does not affect every estate. In fact, the majority of estates in the United States are not subject to estate tax. According to the Tax Policy Center, only 1,900 estates were subject to estate tax in 2019, which is roughly 0.1% of all estates. However, those who are subject to the estate tax often have significant wealth, and the tax can have a significant impact on their estates.

How is Estate Tax Calculated?

Estate tax is calculated based on the value of the estate at the time of the owner’s death. The value of the estate is determined by adding up all of the assets included in the estate, including cash, investments, real estate, personal property, and business ownership. The value of the estate is then reduced by any debts or liabilities. The resulting value is the taxable estate.

The estate tax rate varies based on the total value of the taxable estate. The current estate tax rate in the United States is 40%. This rate is applied to the value of the estate above the threshold, which is currently $11.7 million per person, or $23.4 million for a married couple. For example, if a single individual has an estate value of $20 million, they would be subject to estate tax on $8.3 million ($20 million – $11.7 million threshold). The estate tax liability in this scenario would be $3.32 million (40% of $8.3 million).

Estate Tax Exemptions

The estate tax does provide several exemptions and deductions that can help reduce the amount of estate tax payable. The most common exemption is the unified credit, which allows individuals to transfer up to a certain amount of wealth tax-free during their lifetime or at death. The current unified credit amount is $11.7 million per person, or $23.4 million for a married couple. This means that individuals and married couples can transfer this amount of wealth tax-free to their heirs.

Another common exemption is the marital deduction. This deduction allows an individual to transfer an unlimited amount of property to their spouse tax-free. This deduction can be used to reduce or eliminate estate tax liability for married couples.

Charitable donations can also be used to reduce estate tax liability. Charitable donations made during an individual’s lifetime or at death can be deducted from the taxable value of the estate.

State Estate Taxes

In addition to federal estate taxes, several states also impose estate taxes or inheritance taxes. Currently, thirteen states and the District of Columbia have state estate taxes, with exemption thresholds ranging from $1 million to $11.7 million. Six states have inheritance taxes, which are paid by the heirs or beneficiaries, and the tax rate varies based on their relationship to the deceased.

It is important to understand your state’s estate tax laws and exemptions to ensure that you are properly planning for your estate. Estate tax laws can be complex and vary significantly from state to state, so it’s best to consult with a financial planner or estate planning attorney.

Estate Tax Planning

Estate tax planning is an essential part of wealth management. Proper estate planning can help reduce the amount of estate tax payable and ensure that your assets are distributed according to your wishes. Some common estate planning strategies include gifting, trusts, and life insurance.

Gifting is a common strategy used to reduce estate tax liability. Individuals can gift up to $15,000 per person per year tax-free. This means that an individual can gift up to $15,000 to as many people as they wish without triggering any gift tax liability. By gifting assets during their lifetime, individuals can reduce the overall value of their estate and potentially reduce estate tax liability.

Trusts are another commonly used estate planning tool. Trusts can be used to protect assets, minimize estate tax liability, and control how assets are distributed to beneficiaries. There are several types of trusts, including revocable trusts, irrevocable trusts, and charitable trusts. Each type of trust has its own benefits and considerations, so it’s important to work with an experienced estate planning attorney to determine the best strategy for your situation.

Life insurance can also be a helpful tool in estate planning. Life insurance can provide liquidity for the estate, which can help pay estate taxes or fund the transfer of assets to heirs. Life insurance can also provide tax-free benefits to beneficiaries and be used to equalize distributions between heirs.


Estate tax is a complex and often misunderstood topic. While the majority of estates in the United States are not subject to estate tax, those who are subject to the tax often have significant wealth and assets. Proper estate planning can help reduce estate tax liability and ensure that assets are distributed according to your wishes. It’s important to work with an experienced financial planner or estate planning attorney to develop a comprehensive estate plan that meets your needs and protects your wealth for future generations.

Estate taxes and inheritance taxes are two forms of taxation placed on the estate of deceased individuals. The estate tax is levied on the total value of the estate on the day that the benefactor passes away. There are certain deductions that can lower that total tax. For example, the total value of the estate will be reduced by the amount of costs associated with distributing the, as well as the funeral of the benefactor. The inheritance tax is levied against those that inherit property from the estate.

The estate tax is paid by the estate and the inheritance tax is paid by those that actually inherit all, or a portion of that estate.  The taxes are generally imposed on the gross value of the estate. The Gross value is calculated by adding the total value of the contents of the estate on the day the benefactor passes away. If there is a significant increase or decrease in the value of the estate after that time, the taxes will not be effected. After calculating the gross value of an estate, there are some allowable deductions on both the state and federal level.

There are allowable deductions for the costs associated with maintaining or administering the estate. In addition to deductions, there are also allowable exemptions. For example, most estates are exempt from the inheritance tax and the estate tax if the value of the estate falls below the maximum exemption value. In 2011, estates valued at less than one million dollars will be exempt for the estate tax. There are also credits that can be taken against both taxes. For example, children may inherit up to one million dollars tax free from their parents. That exemption is different than the lifetime exemption for gifts from parents, which is also one million dollars. Children may get a total of two million dollars from parents tax free.

Tentative taxes are imposed at a flat rate of a range of estate values. Generally, the range of values can be quite substantial. For example, an estate may fall within the range of twenty to forty thousand dollars and receive the same flat tax. However, the tentative tax also includes a tax as a percentage of any amount over the minimum in that range.

If for example, the person inherited thirty thousand dollars they would have to pay the flat rate tax on that range of value, in addition to an added percentage tax on the ten thousand above the minim range. Once an individual has made determinations about tax rates, they must file the forms and pay the federal taxes within nine months of the benefactors death. There are some allowable extensions but there would be interest incurred on taxes due. State to state, the filing deadlines and rules differ from those at the federal level.

The estate tax and the inheritance tax are very controversial. There are some that argue it unfairly taxes the wealthy, or those that save their whole lives to bequeath money to future generations. They claim that hard work is punished when estate taxes can be as much ad fifty percent on the federal level, in addition to any state taxes that may be imposed. In some cases there is an estate tax and the beneficiaries must also pay an inheritance tax in their state of residence. That results in a large deficit of money actually passed on to beneficiaries.

However, there are those that claim that an inheritance tax prevents future generations from being lazy by living off of the profits of others. In fact, many people claim that no one is entitled to the money made by previous generations. The debate continues and will likely gain fervor as the new inheritance tax laws go into effect in 2011. Those laws drastically reduce allowable deductions, credits and exemptions. The tax burden on estate and inheritance will increase significantly.


Inheritance taxes and estate taxes were previously allowing for inflation to be a factor in making tax rate determinations. In other words,as years passed,  taxpayers were being allowed to inherit larger amounts of money without paying taxes. In addition, the rates imposed on inheritance were increasing as estate or inheritance value increased, but the increases were related to inflation. When the new federal inheritance tax laws go into effect in 2011, those rates will revert back to those that applied in 2001.

The exemption allowance will be lowered from three and a half million to one million dollars. There are many changes to the laws which will directly effect the amount of taxes beneficiaries pay. Even those that inherit in 2010, may find that the new laws will be retroactive. Although beneficiaries can inherit tax free this year, they may find that taxes are due next year, and those rates will be the ones that applied in 2001. Although an individual could have inherited three and a half million tax free in 2009, the rate of tax on three and a half million in 2011 will be very significant. The rate will likely tax that amount of money at fifty five percent.

Gross Estate:

A gross estate is the name given to the total value of an estate on the day that a benefactor passes away. The gross estate value can not change after that time. In other words, estates that fluctuate in value after the benefactor has passed away, will still be taxed at the gross estate value.  Taxes are actually applied to the value after all allowable exemptions, deductions and credits have been taken against the value of the estate. However, the base value of the estate is determined on the day of death. In fact, many states calculate the inheritance tax in the same manner. Inheritance tax can be imposed o the value of the inherited property on the day the benefactor died.

Possible Deduction of Estate Tax:

There are several ways that the value of a gross estate can be reduced, thereby reducing the taxes imposed against the estate.  First, the cost of administrating the estate is deducted from the value of the estate. In addition, any costs associated with the funeral of the benefactor, are also deducted from the value.  In essence, the costs associated with administering the estate, including those associated with funeral arrangement, are subtracted from the value of t he estate before it is taxed.

If the benefactor carried a mortgage or other debt when they passed away, those payments will be deducted from the value of the estate. In fact, all debts must be paid by the estate before the beneficiaries can take possession of inherited property. Once all allowable deductions are taken against the value of the estate, the tentative estate tax can be determined. Deductions from inheritance tax are determined slightly differently, and can vary in each state.

Tentative Tax:

The tentative estate tax is imposed after all allowable deductions have made to the value of an estate. Those deductions may include administration fees associated with the estate. Each jurisdiction has other allowable deductions, but they vary within each state. After the value of an estate reaches an amount above the exemption limit, the tentative tax is applied. For example, an estate valued at over one million dollars, will incur the federal estate tax in 2011.

After that one million dollars in value has been surpassed, the value is placed within the appropriate bracket. There will be a flat, tentative tax applied to the amount based on the tax bracket. For example, an amount between one million and one million, two hundred and twenty five thousand dollars, may be taxed at a flat amount of three hundred and fifty thousand dollars. In addition, any amount over the minimum one million dollars, would be taxed at a rate of forty one percent. The total tax would be the flat rate combined with the forty one percent of any amount over the minimum in that value range. A difference of just a few dollars in inheritance can greatly effect the tax brackets in which the value falls.


There are some estate tax credits as well as inheritance tax credits, that apply on the federal level. In addition, there are some credits available on the state level, which vary according to each states inheritance laws. In most cases, beneficiaries that are a direct heir of the benefactor, can inherit up to one million dollars tax free.

There are also credits available if the beneficiary inherits property that has already been inherited in the last ten years. For example, if the beneficiary’s parent had inherited the money form their grandparent in the last ten years, they should be able to inherit that money without paying any taxes, if taxes were paid the first time it was inherited. There are several types of credits but beneficiaries must meet specific criteria in order to enjoy those credits.

Filing and Paying Estate Tax:

Although the current tax year has seen no Federal estate or inheritance taxes, that will change in the next tax year. In fact, those that inherited in 2010, may find that they owe taxes retroactive once the new Federal law goes into effect. Each state also has the ability to impose a separate estate or inheritance tax.

In fact, there are states that impose both forms of taxes in addition to the Federal taxes. For federal taxes, the deadline to file is usually nine months form the date that the benefactor passes away. In some cases, beneficiaries may be granted an extension. However, if they are granted an extension, they will have to pay interest on the taxes owed as a result of inheritance or on the estate tax.

Estate Tax Rates:

Estate tax rates imposed by the Federal government are zero for the tax year 2010. The rates that will apply in 2011, will be similar to those that were imposed in 2001. Although exemption rates had been higher in 2009, the exemption rate will be significantly lowed in 2011. In fact, the amount that individuals will be exempt from paying taxes on, has fallen to less than a third of what it was in 2009.

In addition, the rates of taxes due on any monies above the exemption amount, have also increased. The estate tax rate will be as high as fifty five percent in 2011. The taxes may be applied using the tentative tax which imposed a flat rate of taxes on an estate valued within specific ranges. After that flat rate tax is applied, there is a tax as a percentage of any value above the minimum range.


Exemption rates for Federal estate taxes are set to change in 2011. Although the current rate is zero because their are no federal estate taxes for 2010, the exemption rate in 2011 will be lower than it was on 2009. Estate tax laws, rates, deductions and exemptions are set to revert to those that were in place in 2001.

Since that time, exemption amounts had been increased, which resulted in estate and beneficiaries paying a significantly lower tax. However, when the exemptions and rates revert back to those that were in place in 2001, the taxes will be significantly higher for any estate valued over one million dollars. Each state also allows for exemptions of estates valued below a certain amount. In fact, some states do not impose an inheritance or estate tax no matter what the value is.


There are few ways that the estate tax or inheritance tax can be avoided. If the total value of the estate is below one million dollars, the Federal estate tax will likely be avoided. However, individuals may still be subject to a state tax if it applies. Because of available tax credits, heirs of benefactors can sometimes avoid the inheritance tax.

There is however, a limit on the amount they can inherit while avoiding the inheritance tax. The limit that heirs can inherit while avoiding the federal inheritance tax, is set to be one million dollars in 2011. Generally, spouses can also avoid the inheritance tax, especially if the inherited property included joint assets.

State Estate Taxes:

State estate taxes vary in each state. When the federal law lapsed in 2010, some states also allowed their laws to lapse. Some states impose both an inheritance tax and an estate tax. Whereas, some states impose neither tax. Generally each state has various allowable deductions, exemptions and credits. In many states, relatives can inherit property tax free but only of they are children, spouses, or grandchildren of the deceased. There are similar exemptions on the state and federal level. In most states, there is a maximum exemption and beneficiaries do not have to pay an inheritance tax unless the value of inherited property surpasses that maximum exemption amount.

Debate of Estate Tax:

The estate tax is said to help encourage a good work ethic among American workers. By taxing what the government considers to be free money, inheritance taxes are meant to prevent the perpetuation of familial wealth through the generations. When families are inherently wealthy, future generations are less likely to have a desire to work hard, because they are already wealthy. However, there is also the argument that inheritance and estates taxes will discourage entrepreneurship.

Those that have the desire to own their own business and make a lot of money, may be less likely to do so because leaving the business or the profits to family members, means that a majority of the money will be passed to the government in the form of taxes.