Most taxpayers ignore the federal estate tax, thinking they will never be touched by it. Unfortunately, you do this at your own peril. Why? Because states often have this tax AND politicians have a habit of frequently changing the rules. The best approach for all taxpayers is to understand the basics of the estate tax. Here is a quick summary of common questions you should be able to answer.
Q. Who pays estate taxes?
A. The tax is levied against the estate of a deceased person, which is considered a separate legal entity by the IRS. But the surviving family is effectively responsible for paying the estate tax because it cuts into their inheritance.
Q. What is included in the taxable estate?
A. Your estate includes personal property owned at the time of death, such as a home, cars, cash, collectibles and investments. Investments include securities, real estate, bank accounts and retirement accounts. The total taxable estate is the value of these assets minus deductible expenses and debts.
Q. How are assets valued?
A. The value for tax purposes is generally the property’s fair market value (FMV) on the date of death. Therefore, the basis for computing gain or loss is stepped up to this value. For example, if Diane Monet paid $10,000 for a painting and it’s worth $25,000 at her death, the estate value is $25,000. There are other valuation options in addition to FMV, so this area can get complicated in a hurry.
Q. How is the estate tax calculated?
A. For federal purposes, the tax is 40% of assets in excess of the federal exemption. The federal exemption for 2020 is $11.58 million. The exemption amount is scheduled to decrease to $5 million in 2026. There continues to be an ongoing debate over what this federal exemption amount should be, so it is a good idea to pay attention to future discussions out of Washington, D.C. to understand how it could impact your estate.
Q. Can a married couple double the exemption?
A. Yes. If handled correctly, a couple can effectively shelter up to $23.16 million ($11.58 million times 2) from federal tax in 2020. Remember, this amount is scheduled to be dramatically reduced in 2026.
Q. What is an inheritance tax?
A. Not to be confused with an estate tax, an inheritance tax is paid by those who receive the money from the estate of the person who dies. While there is no federal inheritance tax, six states (Iowa, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Kentucky, Nebraska and Maryland) could tax you if you inherit money.
Q. What about state taxes?
A. Eight states and the District of Columbia currently have an estate tax. The exemption amounts in these states vary, with one as low as $1 million! If you live in one of these areas you better know the rules and have a plan: Connecticut, District of Columbia, Illinois, Massachusetts, Maryland, Minnesota, New York, Oregon and Washington.
Q. How are gifts to others handled?
A. When you give a gift to someone, the federal government generally does not care. But when the value of all gifts to one person in a given year exceed an annual threshold, you must report this to the federal government. This threshold in 2020 is $15,000. The gift tax rules are currently incorporated into the estate tax system. So careful planning is required in this area, especially if you are providing gifts to help finance various items like someone else's education.
Does this cover everything about estate taxes? Not by a long shot. But hopefully by understanding some of the basics, you will have a better idea of knowing when to ask for help.