What Is Estate Tax

Shawn Plummer

CEO, The Annuity Expert

Are you concerned about the ramifications of an estate tax on your family’s financial future? As an important part of any comprehensive wealth-management plan, it is essential to understand how this tax works and what impact it may have on your loved ones. In this guide, we’ll dive into the basics of estate taxes, explain who needs to consider them and discuss some strategies for minimizing or avoiding their effects. Read along to learn more!

What is an Estate Tax?

An estate tax is a transfer tax imposed by the government on all assets passed down to heirs after an individual’s death. The estate tax is based on the value of all assets at the time of death, including real estate, stocks and bonds, jewelry, cash, and other valuable items. Estate taxes are usually charged as a percentage of the total value of an estate and can range anywhere from 0% to as much as 55%.

The federal government levies the estate tax, but some states also have rules and regulations. Individuals need to understand how their state’s laws affect the amount of taxes that must be paid on inherited estates. Knowing how much estate tax is due can help individuals plan for the future and ensure that their heirs receive the assets they were intended to have.

The IRS provides several tools and resources to help estate owners figure out exactly how much estate tax they are responsible for paying. In addition, estate owners should consult an attorney or accountant to understand their state’s estate tax laws better. They may also want to consider investing in life insurance policies to help cover some or all of the estate taxes due upon death.

What Is An Estate Tax?

How Does an Estate Tax Work?

When an estate is subject to taxation, the executor of the estate’s will or administrator must file a tax return with the state’s taxing authority. The value of all assets owned by the deceased person at the time of death is calculated, and any deductions are considered before calculating any taxes due. Estate taxes are typically progressive, meaning the higher the estate’s value, the higher the rate of taxation.

The executor or administrator is responsible for paying all taxes due on behalf of the deceased person’s estate. Depending on state law, estate taxes may be paid before or after certain distributions to heirs are made. It’s important to note that some states offer exemptions to lessen the tax burden on certain estates.

How Does a Gift Tax Work?

When a person gives a gift to someone else, it may be subject to the federal gift tax. This tax is intended to discourage individuals from transferring large amounts of money or property to another person without going through the proper channels and paying taxes.

The amount that can be given as a gift without incurring any taxes depends on how much you make and the relationship of the person receiving the gift. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) considers any transfer of money or property for less than its total value a gift, even if no official exchange is involved.

The annual exclusions allow individuals to give away up to $17,000 in gifts per year to any one person without incurring the gift tax. Gifts up to $17,000 are not included in the total of taxable gifts for that year. Married couples may also give up to $30,000 per year to a single recipient.

The gift tax rate is determined by the gift’s value and the donor’s total taxable gifts for the year. If an individual’s combined tax-free and taxable gifts exceed the annual exclusion amount, they may have to pay taxes on a portion of their gift. The donor and not the recipient pay the taxes.

For example, if someone gives $20,000 as a gift in one year, they will be responsible for paying taxes on the excess amount over the annual exclusion of $15,000. The same would apply to any other gifts given throughout that year.

Estate Tax

What is a Generation-Skipping Transfer Tax?

The Generation-Skipping Transfer (GST) Tax is a federal tax imposed on property transfers from one generation to another that skips over one or more generations. The GST Tax was enacted in 1976 and applied to transfers made directly to skip persons, such as grandchildren or great-grandchildren, and transfers made indirectly, such as through a trust.

Generally, transfers of property subject to the GST Tax are taxed at the highest estate and gift tax rate. In addition, the GST Tax is typically imposed in addition to any state or local taxes due on the transfer. However, proper planning can reduce or even eliminate liability for the GST Tax.

The GST Tax aims to prevent wealthy taxpayers from avoiding estate and gift taxes by transferring property directly to grandchildren or more remote descendants. The Internal Revenue Code allows for a GST tax exemption that can be used in certain situations, such as when an exemption amount is available within the taxpayer’s lifetime or on transfers made in trust. Additionally, taxpayers may allocate GST Tax exemptions on qualified property transfers.

How Does The Gift and Estate Tax “Exemption” Work?

In 2023, a single person can pass on an estate worth up to $12.92 million without paying federal estate tax. For married couples, this amount doubles, and they can leave an estate of up to $25.84 million exempt from taxation this year.

In 2020, a mere 0.1% of the over 3 million Americans who passed away had to file Form 706 United States Estate (and Generation-Skipping Transfer) Tax Return — just 3,441 individuals! And with an exemption so large, only 1,275 estates ended up paying any gift or estate taxes – only 0.04%. Yet still, this equated to $9.3 billion being collected from those estates alone!

What is The Federal Tax Rate For Taxable Estates?

As of 2023, the federal estate tax applies to assets beyond $12.92 million, with the federal estate tax rate ranging from 18% to 40%. Since the federal estate tax affects relatively few people, many states have their estate taxes. These vary widely in terms of amount and rates of taxation. In addition, some states have adopted a “pick up” tax, which requires estates to pay the difference between the state and federal rates even if they are exempt from federal taxation.

What Is The Federal Tax Rate For Taxable Estates?

How Much Can You Inherit Without Paying Taxes?

Inheriting money or property can be a windfall but may also come with a tax bill. The federal government and some state governments impose taxes on inheritances, although the amount of tax depends on several factors. The amount you can receive from an inheritance without taxation depends on who gave you the inheritance, where the donor lived, and the size of the estate. The federal government imposed an estate tax on estates valued at more than $12,920,00 in 2023 (this amount changes annually). You may need to pay estate taxes if you inherit from someone whose estate exceeds this amount.

In addition, any state with an inheritance tax may impose taxes on an estate exceeding its threshold. In some cases, you may be exempt from paying certain inheritance taxes. For example, if you inherit money or property from a spouse, the federal government does not impose any inheritance tax on these gifts (although some states do). In addition, many states will exempt inherited property from taxation if you use it as your primary residence.

Transfers and Gifts 

To protect your assets from an estate tax, consider transferring them to someone else and removing them from your estate.

There are numerous approaches to accomplish this.: 

  • Marital transfers: Married couples can save on estate taxes by transferring wealth when one partner dies. If your spouse is a US resident, you may be able to grant them tax-exempt lifetime gifts worth any amount. For non-US citizens, the exemption only extends to marital presents totaling $164,000 (as of 2022). Despite this advantage, its utility remains limited in scope. Although marital transfers can be beneficial, they do not exempt one from their estate tax obligation. Inevitably, upon the surviving spouse’s death, taxes must be paid on inherited and gifted assets. Thus, while these transfers may temporarily delay payment of the estate bill, they cannot wholly evade taxation.
  • Gifts to family members: Every year, married couples can provide up to $32,000 worth of tax-free gifts annually-gift tax laws allow a generous allowance of $17,000 for each spouse. Additionally, taking advantage of such annual gifts can reduce your taxable estates and benefit those who will receive them!
  • Gifts to minors: As stipulated by two federal laws, individuals can give tax-free gifts of up to $17,000 per person in 2023. This rule applies to minors (under 18) too!
  • Charitable donations: Gifts to organizations with a 501(c)(3) tax status can be written off your taxes, meaning you don’t have to pay for them! You can donate to nonprofit educational institutions, religious establishments, public leisure spots, and nonprofit agencies like the Red Cross. Not only will these contributions not add up to your taxable income, but it is also deducted from your taxable estate!


An effective way to bypass estate taxes is establishing a trust. 

Establishing a trust is an excellent way to ensure your assets are securely passed onto the intended beneficiaries. This process entails transferring ownership of these assets to a trustee who will then manage and distribute them accordingly. Upon the death of an individual, their appointed trustee will distribute the trust assets under the agreement. You can bypass tedious and often time-consuming probate court procedures by utilizing a trust instead of a will.

Different types of trusts have different benefits when it comes to taxes. Some of the more popular types include:

Marital Trusts 

There are two types of marital trusts:

  • A-B trust: A-B is a joint structure consisting of two trusts. The “A” trust provides an excellent opportunity for the surviving spouse to draw income from its assets and even reside in one’s home. Its agreement precisely states what rights are granted to them, allowing for more financial protection than other trusts. With this trust, no estate tax on the property is transferred into it. When the surviving spouse passes away, Part B of the trust will be activated, and its assets will be given to their intended initial beneficiaries.
  • QTIP trust: Unlike an A-B trust, the surviving spouse in a marital trust does not have the same power to access or control assets.

Irrevocable Life Insurance Trust 

Irrevocable life insurance trusts are tailored to shield life insurance policies from estate taxes. For example, suppose you’re close to or already over your state and federal exemption limits. In that case, this trust can be beneficial in keeping your policy proceeds separate from the rest of your estate assets, thus protecting them from taxation. In addition, putting a policy into an irrevocable life insurance trust ensures it’s exempt from any future tax increases on estates.

Arranging your life insurance policy in an irrevocable trust quickly removes it from your estate and secures the proceeds for its intended beneficiaries. Furthermore, an irrevocable trust cannot be altered once established; thus, you can create a plan specifying when and how to distribute funds upon death that everyone agrees with.

Estate Tax Rate

Qualified Personal Residence Trust 

By creating a trust agreement, married couples can put their house into the trust to benefit their loved ones while still living there for an allotted amount of time. When that period comes to an end, the property is then transferred to them. The only potential downside with this arrangement is that if one partner dies before the term ends, all heirs will not receive any estate tax advantage.

Charitable Trusts 

Establishing a charitable trust is an excellent way to support your favorite charity and make sure that your assets are put to good use. The beneficiary of the trust will be the chosen nonprofit organization, with donors having the option of contributing cash, stocks, real estate, or any other property.  

When it comes to charitable trusts, there are two distinct types:  

  • Charitable Lead Trusts: (CLT) is a powerful tool for donors to provide immediate financial support and long-term tax relief. By setting up the trust, which is often active during the donor’s lifetime, charities can benefit from generous donations while providing significant deductions when taxes come due. In addition, when the trust terminates or upon the donor’s death, non-charity beneficiaries receive payment from residual funds remaining in the trust.
  • Charitable Remainder Trusts: (CRT) is the reverse of Charitable Lead Trusts. With CRTs, a charitable organization serves as a trustee and makes payments to a donor or another named beneficiary during their lifetime. After the donor passes away, any remaining assets in the trust transfer over to said charity.

Family Limited Partnership 

If your family has business interests in traditional areas like stores, chains or investments, and real estate, then a Family Limited Partnership (FLP) may be the perfect solution. An FLP is an agreement among family members that allows you to combine multiple entities into one partnership with shared benefits such as tax savings and asset protection. With an FLP, you can ensure that all parties are treated fairly while taking advantage of more financial opportunities. 

An FLP is suitable for estate taxes because it lets family members put their money together. They can then give some of the money to other family members if they want to.

This maneuver can reduce the size of some members’ estates while benefiting others in the family. This is because the assets you put into an FLP and transfer to others are removed from your estate. This can result in saving a lot of money in taxes.

Real Estate Valuation 

Real estate is usually estimated based on its highest and best-use value, which typically works to the advantage of homeowners. But if you’re looking to reduce your estate’s worth for taxation purposes, getting it valued at its “actual use” instead may be a more prudent choice that could lead to significant savings when paying taxes.

What is The Highest Gift and Estate Tax Rate?

The gift tax rate begins at 18% for the first $10,000 in taxable transfers and goes up to an imposing 40% on any amount above a million dollars. The gift tax applies to each transfer, so if you give two gifts to the same person in one year, each will be taxed separately.

For example, if you give one $10,000 gift and a second $1 million gift to someone in the same year, both will be subject to the gift tax. The total amount of taxable gifts for the year must be reported on your federal income tax return. To ensure you don’t owe any taxes, it’s crucial to understand how the gift tax works and plan your gifts accordingly.

The annual gift exclusion allows you to give up to $15,000 per person without paying taxes—the annual exclusion amount increases in specific years due to inflation. Additionally, you can give unlimited money or property to a qualifying charity without worrying about the gift tax.

What’s The Difference Between an Estate Tax and an Inheritance Tax?

The estate tax is determined by the overall value of an estate, while inheritance tax only applies to a single gift. The estate pays for the former, and its recipient typically takes on the latter. That being said, if one wishes to do so in their will, they may arrange for the taxes on bequests to be settled from the estate’s funds as well.

Estate Vs. Inheritance Tax

How do You Calculate Federal Estate Taxes?

When assessing the federal estate tax, all assets and interests owned by the deceased must be accounted for at their time of death. This includes real and personal property such as trust funds, annuities, business ventures, and in certain circumstances, life insurance proceeds, forming a calculation known as the gross estate. Gathering all this information in one place makes determining how much money is liable to taxation easier.

Once the gross estate has been calculated, you must subtract any debts or expenses that the deceased incurred before death, such as medical bills, funeral costs, and taxes. The resulting amount is known as the net estate. This amount is then subject to taxation at the federal level according to Internal Revenue Service (IRS) rules.

The amount of tax owed depends on the net estate size and the deceased’s filing status. Generally, no federal taxes will be due if the net estate is under a certain threshold (which changes yearly). However, if the estate exceeds this threshold, it is subject to taxation at various rates depending on how much is owed.

Next Steps

Estate taxes are a complicated but essential part of the tax landscape. While these taxes don’t usually affect most taxpayers, those with substantial estates must pay close attention to the changing rules and regulations surrounding them. United States citizens can avoid these types of taxes by utilizing legal tools such as trusts and bypass trusts to protect their assets. With careful planning and seeking sound professional advice, taxpayers can ensure that their money goes exactly where they intend it after they’re gone. Once you understand how estate taxes work and the steps you need to take to protect your interests, you can rest assured knowing that your life’s work will be safeguarded in the most financially responsible manner possible.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What is the tax rate for the estate tax?

The 2023 federal estate tax rate is 40% on a value above $12.92 million.

How do you calculate estate tax?

Calculate the estate’s gross value, subtract deductions and exemptions, and then apply the 2023 federal estate tax rate of 40% on the remaining value over $12,920,000.

Does the US still have an estate tax?

The US still has an estate tax in 2023, with a $12.92 million exemption per individual.

What is the difference between an estate tax and a gift tax?

The estate tax is a tax on the transfer of property after death, while the gift tax is a tax on the transfer of property during one’s lifetime.

How much money can you gift to a family member without paying taxes?

In 2023, the annual exclusion limit for gift tax is $17,000 per recipient per year.

Do beneficiaries pay tax on gifts?

No, beneficiaries do not pay tax on gifts. The gift tax is typically paid by the person making the gift (i.e., the donor).

Is it better to gift or inherit property?

It depends on individual circumstances, such as tax implications, timing, and personal preferences.

What is the purpose of estate and gift taxes?

The purpose of estate and gift taxes is to generate revenue for the government and prevent the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few individuals or families.

How does the IRS know if you give a gift?

The IRS may know if you give a gift if you report it on your tax return or if the gift exceeds the annual exclusion limit and you file a gift tax return. Additionally, sure gifts may be subject to disclosure rules or trigger other reporting requirements.

What is the IRS estate tax?

The IRS estate tax is a federal tax on the transfer of an individual’s property at death. The tax is calculated based on the estate’s value and is paid by the estate before assets are distributed to beneficiaries.

*Disclosure: Some of the links in this guide may be affiliate links. I may receive a commission at no cost to you if you purchase a policy. It helps us keep the lights on!

Shawn Plummer

CEO, The Annuity Expert

Shawn Plummer is a licensed insurance agent and annuity broker with over a decade of first-hand experience. Since beginning his journey in 2009, he has been pivotal in selling and educating about annuities and insurance products. Still, he has also played an instrumental role in training financial advisors for a prestigious Fortune Global 500 insurance company, Allianz. His insights and expertise have made him a sought-after voice in the industry, leading to features in renowned publications such as Time Magazine, Bloomberg, Entrepreneur, Yahoo! Finance, MSN, SmartAsset, The Simple Dollar, U.S. News and World Report, Women’s Health Magazine, and many more. Shawn’s driving ambition? To simplify retirement planning, he ensures his clients understand their choices and secure the best insurance coverage at unbeatable rates.

The Annuity Expert is an independent online insurance agency servicing consumers across the United States. The goal is to help you take the guesswork out of retirement planning and find the best insurance coverage at the cheapest rates

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