Estate Tax in the United States: What It Is and How It Works

How estate tax works

Federal and state estate taxes are paid from the assets of your estate before the remaining assets can be distributed to your heirs. The executor or the trustee of a qualified grantor trust is responsible for filing the applicable federal and state estate tax returns and ensuring that all taxes are paid from the estate.

Estate taxes, also commonly referred to as inheritance taxes or death taxes, are taxes imposed by the government on the transfer of a person’s wealth and assets to their heirs or beneficiaries upon their death.

These taxes are assessed based on the total value of the deceased person’s estate and can significantly impact the amount of wealth that is ultimately passed on to heirs. Estate taxes can vary widely from one country or jurisdiction to another, so it’s essential to understand how they work in your specific location.

Key Facts to Know about Estate Taxes

Exemption Threshold

Most jurisdictions have an exemption threshold, which is the minimum value of an estate below which no estate taxes are owed. Estates valued below this threshold are considered exempt from estate taxes. Above this threshold, the estate may be subject to taxation.

Tax Rates

Estate tax rates are typically progressive, meaning that the percentage of the estate’s value subject to taxation increases as the total estate value rises. The tax rates and brackets can vary, but higher-value estates generally face higher tax rates.

Gift Tax

Some jurisdictions also have a gift tax, which is a tax on significant gifts given during a person’s lifetime. The purpose of the gift tax is to prevent individuals from giving away their assets before death to avoid estate taxes. In many cases, gift taxes and estate taxes are interconnected, with unified lifetime gift and estate tax exemptions.

Exemptions and Deductions

In addition to the basic exemption threshold, many jurisdictions offer additional exemptions or deductions for certain types of assets or transfers. For example, some countries may allow a portion of the estate to pass tax-free to a surviving spouse or to charity.

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In some places, there is a concept called “portability” that allows a surviving spouse to inherit any unused portion of their deceased spouse’s exemption. This can effectively double the exemption amount for a married couple.

State and Federal Taxes

In the United States, for example, both federal and state-level estate taxes may apply. Some states have their own estate tax laws with different exemption thresholds and rates. It’s essential to consider both federal and state estate tax implications when planning your estate.

Estate Tax Planning

Many people engage in estate tax planning to minimize the impact of estate taxes on their heirs. Strategies may include setting up trusts, making lifetime gifts, and using other legal instruments to reduce the taxable value of the estate.

Valuation of Assets

Determining the value of assets in a property is a critical aspect of inheritance tax calculation. Professional appraisals or assessments may be necessary to establish the fair market value of certain assets.

Estate Tax Returns

In many jurisdictions, an estate must file an estate tax return to report the value of the estate and calculate any taxes owed. The executor or administrator of the estate is typically responsible for this task.

International Considerations

If you have assets in multiple countries, you may need to navigate complex international inheritance tax issues, including potential double taxation. Consulting with tax professionals who specialize in international tax law can be beneficial in such cases.


It’s important to note that inheritance tax laws can change over time, and they vary widely by jurisdiction. Therefore, if you have concerns about estate taxes or wish to engage in estate tax planning, it’s advisable to consult with an experienced estate planning attorney or tax advisor who can provide guidance tailored to your specific circumstances and the laws in your area. Proper planning can help minimize estate taxes and ensure that your wealth is distributed according to your wishes.

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