Estate and inheritance (“death”) taxes are levied on the transfer of property at death. The difference between an estate tax and an inheritance tax is based on who pays the bill. An estate tax is levied on the estate of the deceased, while an inheritance tax is levied on the heirs of the deceased. That’s the simple explanation. As for execution, there are far more nuances based on the monetary value of a bequest; the status of the beneficiary/(ies); and where you live when you pass away.
Federal Estate Tax
An estate tax applies to the value of the assets left behind by a decedent and is paid out from the proceeds of the estate before the rest of the assets are distributed to heirs. Estate wealth is usually comprised of cash, securities and real estate.
In 2023, if an estate is valued at more than $12.92 million ($25.84 million for couples), the estate will owe a progressive tax rate levied on the value above that amount. For example, if an estate is valued at $15 million, it will pay estate taxes on the $2,080,000 above the exemption. The federal tax rate ranges from 18 percent to 40 percent, depending on the taxable value of the estate.
Generally, the estate tax applies to only the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans, and only 0.07 percent of estates end up paying the tax, according to the Tax Policy Center. Note that assets inherited by a spouse or charitable organizations are generally not subject to an estate tax.
Some states also levy an estate tax, based on the location of the property. Presently, 12 states plus the District of Columbia levy an estate tax:
- District of Columbia
- New York
- Rhode Island
Estate Tax Strategies
To minimize or eliminate estate taxes, the estate owner has several options. Among the more sophisticated are structuring an Irrevocable Life Insurance Trust, a Family Limited Partnership or funding a Qualified Personal Residence Trust. However, the easiest way to legally avoid estate taxes is to give assets away before you die. Estate owners can make tax-deductible contributions to charitable organizations or gift up to $17,000 in 2023 ($16,000 in 2022) a year, per person, to as many people as you want.
An inheritance tax, on the other hand, is a state tax paid by the beneficiary (heir) of an estate. Not every state levies an inheritance tax, and the laws vary considerably by state. The tax is based on the relationship of the beneficiary to the decedent. For example, in some instances a beneficiary who is a surviving spouse, parent, child or grandchild may be exempt from the tax, whereas a brother, sister, niece or nephew may be subject to an inheritance tax.
Presently, six states levy an inheritance tax (only Maryland levies both estate and inheritance taxes). Each state sets its own exclusion amount, ranging from $1 million to $9.1 million. Amounts above the state exclusion are then subject to a separate estate tax, which tends to range between 1 percent and 18 percent. The tax applies to decedents who lived in one of these states:
- Iowa (phasing out tax by 2025)
- New Jersey
Inheritance Tax Strategies
Similar to estate tax strategies, an estate owner can minimize state inheritance taxes by transferring assets to a trust or family limited partnership, or by gifting assets. Be aware that assets owned under a Roth IRA or Roth 401(k) – that has been open for at least five years – are not subject to any taxes since contributions were already taxed and earnings grow tax free. You also might consider using a portion of your assets to purchase life insurance, naming your heirs as beneficiaries. Since life insurance proceeds are not taxable, this is a way to remove money from the estate to create a larger, tax-free inheritance.
As for current estate assets, one surefire way to legally avoid inheritance taxes is to move to a state that doesn’t levy them.