Your Retirement Center

Estate and Gift Taxes

Nothing is certain but death and taxes. And some taxes are due even after you die.

Your estate is the total value of all your savings and retirement accounts, your home, and any other assets, minus your debts and the cost of settling your estate. Most states impose a tax on estates over a certain value, and the federal government has historically taxed large estates as well. For 2021, you can leave an estate worth up to $11.7 million free of federal estate taxes. The maximum tax rate on amounts over $11.7 million exclusion is 40%. In 2021, the value of a tax-free estate and the amount you can give away as taxable gifts is combined. Then any taxable gifts would be subtracted from $11.7 million to determine the size of the estate you can leave tax free. In future years, the exclusion amount will increase to reflect increases in inflation. In addition, if one spouse of a married couple dies, any part of the exclusion that he or she didn't use can increase the amount the surviving spouse can leave tax-free. For example, if a wife died in 2021 and left her entire $11.7 million estate to her husband, using up none of her exclusion, the husband could leave an estate worth $23.4 million provided all the paperwork had been handled correctly.


It pays to compute your approximate net worth while you're still alive. You may be surprised to find that the value of your possessions, minus mortgages and other debts, has climbed above the tax-exempt amount. Be sure to include the amount you have built up in retirement plans, and an accurate assessment of the market value of your home and your equity in it. Other assets to consider are the face value of your life insurance policies, which could put you over the taxable threshold, and any inheritance you anticipate. If your estate is over the taxable amount or seems likely to top that number, you need an expert tax adviser and a lawyer who specializes in wills and estates. It pays to review your will and estate plan periodically, especially if the value of your assets, the make-up of your family, your wishes for sharing your assets, or the tax laws change, or you move from one state to another. The value of your property, such as your home, stocks, and bonds is figured at the fair market value on the date of your death or six months after—not at what you paid for the property. Your executor picks the valuation date. Using the current market value may raise the value of your estate, but it also means that, in most cases, neither your estate nor your heirs will pay capital gains tax on any increased value of the property that occurred before your death. Under current law, property you leave to beneficiaries in your will passes to them at current market value, or what's known as a step up in basis.


You can avoid estate and gift taxes on annual gifts of up to $15,000 each to as many people as you like. So can your spouse. For example, a couple with three children may give each child $30,000 a year and reduce a potentially taxable estate by $90,000 annually. In addition to the $15,000 you can give to individuals, you can pay unlimited tuition or medical expenses for anyone—a grandchild, perhaps—without being subject to gift tax. But you must pay the hospital, doctor, or college directly. You can't give the money to the patient or the student without incurring potential gift taxes. You can make taxable gifts during your lifetime, and no tax is actually due until the accumulated value of the gifts reaches your lifetime cap. Then you owe tax at the same rate that applies to taxable estates. Unless Congress changes the law, the top rate is 40%.

  • Planners try to arrange married couples' estates so that both spouses can take advantage of the estate tax exemption. The first to die may leave assets directly to children or heirs other than the spouse. Or the assets may be put in a trust, with the income going to the spouse until she or he dies. Then the balance goes to the other heirs tax free.
  • Life-insurance proceeds aren't usually subject to income tax. But they are included in your taxable estate if you own the policy on your life when you die or if you assigned ownership to someone else during the three years before your death. However, if someone else owns the policy on your life, when you die the proceeds aren't included in your estate.
  • If you expect your estate to be taxed, you should arrange for it to raise cash to pay the taxes. You also want your estate to have cash to pay for your funeral, to pay off your debts, and to cover your estate's administration expenses. The estate can deduct these expenses to reduce its value.
  • Consider charitable bequests to reduce your taxable estate. Before death, you can use trusts to give property to a charity while taking a charitable deduction and retaining income for yourself.


While you're alive, you may make unlimited tax-free gifts to your spouse. When you die, you can leave your entire estate to your spouse free of estate tax - provided, in both cases, that he or she is a US citizen. Your spouse's estate will be taxed at his or her death at whatever rate applies at that time.

IRA DONATIONS Some wealthy individuals arrange to have their IRAs donated to qualified charitable organizations when they die. That way, their estates escape paying estate and income taxes on the value of that asset.

If your spouse is not a US citizen, your tax-free gifts are limited to $159,000 a year in 2021, an amount that typically increases slightly from year to year. You probably should consider establishing a qualified domestic trust to soften the tax blow and make it easier to share assets. If you're not married but have a domestic partner, you'll want to work with an experienced tax or legal adviser to find the most efficient solutions for gifting assets or leaving an estate. If a wife and husband own property, such as a home, as joint tenants with the right of survivorship, only half the value is included in the estate of the first to die. If joint tenants aren't married to each other, the entire value of the property is usually included in the estate of the first to die. The estate's representatives can reduce the potential estate tax by proving that the survivor paid for all or part of the property or received a share of it by gift or inheritance.

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