How Do Estate Taxes Work?
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How Do Estate Taxes Work? |

Tax Day is rapidly approaching, and as you prepare to file your tax return this year, it’s a good idea to also review the current legislation on estate and gift taxes.

While the Commonwealth of Virginia effectively repealed its state-level estate or inheritance tax in 2007, federal estate tax laws still apply to estates of a certain size. For this reason, it’s important to understand how the law may impact your beneficiaries and their future inheritance.

Here are some of the basic facts about estate taxes, including who is expected to pay what, and when.

What is the estate tax?

The estate tax is collected by the IRS from estates of a certain size before assets are distributed to any heirs and beneficiaries. Sometimes called the “death tax,” the estate tax is levied against estates larger than $11.58 million per individual, or $23.16 million per married couple (as of 2020) under a temporary change made to the laws under President Donald Trump’s tax reforms.  In 2021, unless Congress acts to extend these changes, the figure will be reduced to roughly $6 million, with a cost of living adjustment to apply on an annual basis.

The amount your estate will pay is determined by how much larger it is than the federal exemption. For instance, under the Trump tax reforms, an estate that is less than $10,000 above the federal limit will pay $0 in base taxes and a marginal tax rate of 18% on the overage amount, while an estate that is $100,000 above the limit will pay a $18,200 base tax plus 28% on the overage.

Who is responsible for paying estate taxes?

All U.S. estates are subject to federal estate tax law, although most are not large enough to be impacted by current regulations. On the state level, 18 states currently collect their own taxes on the estates of its decedents (as mentioned above, Virginia is not one of them). Several states have recently repealed their estate tax for deaths that occurred after a certain date.

What about inheritance taxes and gift taxes?

Inheritance taxes are paid by an individual who benefits from a decedent’s estate. They are not the same as estate taxes, which are paid by the estate itself.

It’s important to note that inheritance taxes are not imposed by the federal government, and only six states (Iowa, Kentucky, Maryland, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania) currently collect inheritance tax from its residents. That means if you leave money to a beneficiary residing in one of these states, they will have to pay inheritance taxes on that amount.

Gift taxes, on the other hand, are paid by someone who gifts assets above a certain amount to another person during their lifetime. Read on to learn more about gift tax exclusions and how lifetime gifting can work as an estate planning strategy.

How can I reduce the size of my taxable estate?

If your estate is approaching the federal exemption limit and you want to ensure it stays below that amount, there are a few different strategies for reducing the size of your taxable estate.

One of the most common methods for doing this is establishing an irrevocable trust.  Assets that are transferred through an irrevocable trust, if created five years prior to your death, may not count toward your taxable estate. As an added bonus, these assets are also not subject to the probate process, as they would be if they were passed through a decedent’s Will.

You may also wish to explore inter vivos gifting as an option for reducing your estate size during your lifetime. Gifting is when one person completely and irrevocably transfers assets to another, and the giver does not receive anything in return.

Gift amounts that fall within the current federally-allowed limits of $15,000 per person, per calendar year are completely tax-free. That means if you gift $15,000 to each of your children over the course of one year, they will not have to report it as income or pay taxes on it to the IRS. For spouses, this means you could give your children a combined gift of $30,000 in any calendar year, tax-free. Any amount over this is considered non-exempt, and you and your recipient will have to pay taxes on that amount.

As long as your non-exempt lifetime gifting – the combined amount that you give away prior to death and leave to others after death – does not exceed the current $11.58 million federal limit, you can effectively use this strategy to reduce your taxable estate over time, while still ensuring that your desired beneficiaries receive their inheritance money.

Still have questions? Ask an experienced estate planning attorney.

Estate planning can be confusing, and it’s not always clear how to best structure your plans to minimize the tax burden and maximize your beneficiaries’ inheritance. No matter how large or small your estate, the Law Office of Patricia E. Tichenor can help.

We’ve been assisting Virginia residents with wills, trusts, and other estate planning needs since 2001. We’ll work with you to review your assets and create the ideal plan for your needs. Contact us today and let’s start planning for your family’s future.