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What Is the Federal Estate Tax?

Estate Tax

The federal estate tax is a tax on property that is transferred to others upon your death. Estate taxes are assessed on the total value of your estate - your home, stocks, bonds, life insurance, and other assets of value - that is over the applicable exclusion amount. Everything you own, whatever the form of ownership and regardless of whether the assets have been through probate, is subject to estate taxes.

Also referred to as the “death tax,” the federal estate tax was first enacted in this country with the Stamp Act of 1797 to help pay for naval rearmament. After several repeals and reinstatements, the Revenue Act of 1916 put the current estate tax into place. Despite its long history, this tax remains controversial.

Estate taxes are calculated on the net value of your estate, which includes all your assets less allowable debts, expenses, and deductions (such as mortgage debt and administrative expenses for the estate). If you have made no taxable gifts, you can estimate the federal estate tax by simply subtracting the applicable estate tax exclusion from your taxable estate, and the resulting taxable value is multiplied by 40%, the current federal estate tax rate.

The most common exception to the federal estate tax is the unlimited marital deduction. The government excludes all transfers of wealth between a husband and wife from federal estate and gift taxes, regardless of the size of the estate. (The surviving spouse must be a U.S. citizen to qualify for this deduction.) However, when the surviving spouse dies, the estate is subject to estate taxes and, unless the appropriate portability preparations have been made, only the surviving spouse's applicable exclusion can be used. There is also an estate tax deduction for transfers to charity.

The Economic Growth and Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2001 gradually increased the federal estate tax exclusion until finally repealing the federal estate tax altogether for the 2010 tax year only. The 2010 Tax Relief Act reinstated the federal estate tax with a $5 million exclusion (indexed annually for inflation after 2011) through December 31, 2012. The 2010 estate tax provisions were made permanent by the American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012, although the top federal estate tax rate was raised to 40%.

The latest major piece of tax legislation is the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, which was signed into law on December 22, 2017. This Act doubled the federal estate tax exclusion to $11.18 million in 2018 (indexed annually for inflation) while retaining the 40% tax rate. For 2019, the exclusion rose to $11.4 million. In 2026, the exclusion is scheduled to revert to its pre-2018 level.

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