Estate Taxes

 

The estate tax in the United States is a tax imposed on the transfer of the "taxable estate" of a deceased person, whether such property is transferred via a will, according to the state laws of intestacy or otherwise made as an incident of the death of the owner, such as a transfer of property from an intestate estate or trust, or the payment of certain life insurance benefits or financial account sums to beneficiaries. The estate tax is one part of the Unified Gift and Estate Tax system in the United States. The other part of the system, the gift tax, imposes a tax on transfers of property during a person's life; the gift tax prevents avoidance of the estate tax should a person want to give away his/her estate.

In addition to the federal government, many states also impose an estate tax, with the state version called either an estate tax or an inheritance tax. Since the 1990s, opponents of the tax have used the pejorative term "death tax". The equivalent tax in the United Kingdom has always been referred to as "inheritance tax".

If an asset is left to a spouse or a (Federally recognized) charitable organization, the tax usually does not apply.

 

Federal Estate Tax

The Federal estate tax is imposed "on the transfer of the taxable estate of every decedent who is a citizen or resident of the United States." The starting point in the calculation is the "gross estate." Certain deductions (subtractions) from the "gross estate" amount are allowed in arriving at a smaller amount called the "taxable estate."

 

The "Gross Estate"

The "gross estate" for Federal estate tax purposes often includes more property than that included in the "probate estate" under the property laws of the state in which the decedent lived at the time of death. The gross estate (before the modifications) may be considered to be the value of all the property interests of the decedent at the time of death.

Life insurance benefits may be included in the gross estate (even though the proceeds arguably were not "owned" by the decedent and were never received by the decedent). Life insurance proceeds are generally included in the gross estate if the benefits are payable to the estate, or if the decedent was the owner of the life insurance policy or had any "incidents of ownership" over the life insurance policy (such as the power to change the beneficiary designation). Similarly, bank accounts or other financial instruments which are "payable on death" or "transfer on death" are usually included in the taxable estate, even though such assets are not subject to the probate process under state law.

 

Deductions and the Taxable Estate

Once the value of the "gross estate" is determined, the law provides for various "deductions" (in Part IV of Subchapter A of Chapter 11 of Subtitle B of the Internal Revenue Code) in arriving at the value of the "taxable estate." Deductions include but are not limited to:

  • Funeral expenses, administration expenses, and claims against the estate;
  • Certain charitable contributions;
  • Certain items of property left to the surviving spouse.
  • Beginning in 2005, inheritance or estate taxes paid to states or the District of Columbia.

Of these deductions, the most important is the deduction for property passing to (or in certain kinds of trust, for) the surviving spouse, because it can eliminate any federal estate tax for a married decedent. However, this unlimited deduction does not apply if the surviving spouse (not the decedent) is not a U.S. citizen. A special trust called a Qualified Domestic Trust or QDOT must be used to obtain an unlimited marital deduction for otherwise disqualified spouses.


 

 

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Estate_tax_in_the_United_States

http://www.irs.gov/businesses/small/article/0,,id=164871,00.html