One of the largest potential expenses your estate may have to pay is taxes, which may include federal transfer taxes, state death taxes, and federal income taxes.
Federal Transfer Taxes
Federal transfer taxes include (1) the federal gift tax and federal estate tax and (2) the federal generation-skipping transfer tax (GSTT).
Federal gift tax - Gift tax is imposed on property you transfer to others while you are living. You need a basic understanding of how the gift tax system works to minimize gift tax liability. Under the gift tax system, you are allowed a $5 million lifetime gift tax applicable exclusion amount that reduces your gift tax liability (any gift tax applicable exclusion amount you use during life effectively reduces the applicable exclusion amount that will be available at your death). Also, you are currently allowed to give $13,000 per donee gift tax free under the annual gift tax exclusion. Further, certain other types of transfers can be made gift tax free. You need to understand what these types of transfer are and how they work to take full advantage of them.
Federal estate tax - Generally speaking, estate tax is imposed on property you transfer to others at the time of your death. You need a basic understanding of how the estate tax system works for several reasons:
- Saving your property for your beneficiaries - Estate tax rates could reach as high as 55 percent in 2013, which means that an enormous chunk of your estate may go to the federal government instead of your beneficiaries. If you want to preserve your estate for your beneficiaries, you'll need to know how to minimize estate tax with respect to your property.
- Reducing estate tax liability - Under the estate tax system, you are allowed an applicable exclusion amount that reduces your estate tax liability. Also, there are exclusions, deductions, and other credits available that allow you to pass a certain amount of your estate tax free. You need to understand what these exclusions, deductions, and credits are and how they work to take full advantage of them.
- Providing for the payment of estate tax - Generally, estate tax must be paid within nine months after your death. To avoid depriving your beneficiaries of what you intend for them to receive, you should provide that specific and sufficient assets be set aside and used for this purpose. In addition, these assets should be sufficiently liquid to pay these expenses when they are due.
- Planning for estate tax expense - Although calculating estate tax can be complex, you should estimate what the amount of your estate tax may be (if any), so that you can arrange to replace that wealth.
Generation-Skipping Transfer Tax (GSTT) - Another federal transfer you need to understand is the federal generation-skipping transfer tax (GSTT). The GSTT is imposed on property you transfer to an individual who is two or more generations below you (e.g., a grandchild or great-nephew). Not surprisingly, the IRS wants to levy a tax on property as it is passed from generation to generation at each and every level. The purpose of the GSTT is to keep individuals from avoiding estate tax by skipping an intermediate generation. A flat tax rate equal to the highest estate tax then in effect is imposed on every generation-skipping transfer you make over a certain amount. Currently, some states also impose their own GSTT. Check with an attorney or your state to find out what may be subject to your state's GSTT, and how and when to file a state GSTT return.
State death taxes - States also impose their own death taxes. You should be aware of what the death tax laws are in your state and how they may affect your estate. There are three types of state death taxes: (1) estate tax, (2) inheritance tax, and (3) credit estate tax (also called a sponge tax or pickup tax). Some states also impose their own gift tax and/or generation skipping transfer tax.
- Estate tax - State estate tax is imposed on property you transfer to others at your death, much like federal estate tax. The state estate tax calculation for most states is similar to the federal calculation.
- Inheritance tax - Unlike estate tax, the inheritance tax is imposed on your beneficiary's right to receive your property. Tax is due on each beneficiary's share of your estate. Beneficiaries are grouped into classes (generally based upon their familial relationship to you) and are taxed accordingly. Although inheritance tax is due on each heir's share of your estate, it's your personal representative who writes the check from your estate to pay it.
- Credit estate tax - Some states impose a credit estate tax (also referred to as a sponge tax or pickup tax).
Federal income taxes - In the estate planning context, you should be aware of three federal income tax considerations:
- Income taxation of trusts - If your estate plan includes the use of a trust, you need to know that a trust may be an income tax-paying entity. The trustee may be required to file an annual return and pay income taxes on trust income.
- Decedent's final income tax return - Your personal representative or surviving spouse has the duty of filing your last income tax return that covers the tax year ending on the date of your death.
- Income taxation of your estate - Your estate is considered a separate income taxpaying entity. Your personal representative must file and pay income taxes on any income your estate receives (e.g., interest from bonds, or dividends from stock).