Estate Tax: Definition, Tax Rates and Who Pays in 2020-2021

Several states have this tax on the transfer of property after death. Know whether the rules and thresholds apply.

Kay Bell, Tina OremNovember 14, 2020

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What is estate tax?

The estate tax is a tax on a person's assets after death. In 2020, federal estate tax generally applies to assets over $11.58 million. Estate tax rate ranges from 18% to 40%. Some states also have estate taxes. Assets spouses inherit generally aren't subject to estate tax.

IRS Form 706 has the details on exactly which assets count in the calculations, how to find their value and how to figure the tax. But in general, you figure the tax by applying the rates below to the amount of the estate that's subject to tax. See a qualified tax professional if you have questions.

Do I have to pay taxes on an estate?

Probably not. The IRS exempts estates of less than $11.58 million from the tax in 2020 and $11.7 million in 2021, so few people actually end up paying it. Plus, that exemption is per person, so a married couple could double it. The IRS taxes estates above that threshold at rates of up to 40%.

Estate tax rates

Tax rate

Taxable amount

Tax owed

18%

$0 to $10,000

18% of taxable amount

20%

$10,001 to $20,000

$1,800 plus 20% of the amount over $10,000

22%

$20,001 to $40,000

$3,800 plus 22% of the amount over $20,000

24%

$40,001 to $60,000

$8,200 plus 24% of the amount over $40,000

26%

$60,001 to $80,000

$13,000 plus 26% of the amount over $60,000

28%

$80,001 to $100,000

$18,200 plus 28% of the amount over $80,000

30%

$100,001 to $150,000

$23,800 plus 30% of the amount over $100,000

32%

$150,001 to $250,000

$38,800 plus 32% of the amount over $150,000

34%

$250,001 to $500,000

$70,800 plus 34% of the amount over $250,000

37%

$500,001 to $750,000

$155,800 plus 37% of the amount over $500,000

39%

$750,001 to $1,000,000

$248,300 plus 39% of the amount over $750,000

40%

$1,000,001 and up

$345,800 plus 40% of the amount over $1,000,000

A handful of states also impose estate taxes at various income thresholds.

Some tax rules have changed due to coronavirus

Learn more about what's different for taxpayers as part of the federal government's response to the coronavirus.

Which states have an estate tax?

Several states and the District of Columbia have an estate tax. Many have lower asset thresholds than the federal government. Each state’s exclusion amount is in the table below.

If you live in a state with an estate tax, the good news is that (generally speaking) your estate tax bill is subtracted from the value of your taxable estate before you calculate what you might owe the IRS.

States with an estate tax

State

Exclusion amount

Connecticut

$3.6 million

District of Columbia

$5.682 million

Hawaii

$5.49 million

Illinois

$4 million

Maine

$5.7 million

Maryland

$5 million

Massachusetts

$1 million

Minnesota

$2.7 million

New York

$5.74 million

Oregon

$1 million

Rhode Island

$1.562 million

Vermont

$2.75 million

Washington

$2.193 million

What is the difference between estate tax and inheritance tax?

A few states have an inheritance tax, which is different because heirs pay the tax.

  • Six states have an inheritance tax, and one collects both estate and inheritance taxes.

  • Inheritance tax rates often depend on the heir’s relationship to the deceased. A surviving spouse is usually exempt from state inheritance tax. Some states tax a deceased person's children, but at a low rate. More distant relatives or heirs who aren't related to the deceased usually face the highest inheritance tax rates.

How to reduce or avoid federal estate tax

If you want to reduce your estate taxes before you die, there are some tactics you might use to protect your property. They include:

  • Spending your assets. If you're not afraid of running out of money before you die, enjoy your wealth.

  • Spreading your assets. You could give away part of your estate as gifts to loved ones while you're still around. Many states don't tax gifts. (Learn how the gift tax works.)

  • Giving away your assets. If you leave property to a qualifying charity, it is deductible from the gross estate.

  • Shielding your assets in a trust. Properly created irrevocable or bypass trusts could provide a way to legally shelter some of your assets from state and federal estate tax.

  • Moving to a more favorable tax environment. Since most states don't have estate tax or inheritance tax, you have many relocation options.

  • For more on transferring your assets wisely, see our estate planning checklist.


Find more ways to secure your assets and your future


If you inherit or bequeath something, watch out for capital gains tax

Even if an inheritance isn't taxed when your heirs receive it, any subsequent earnings or income that it produces may be considered taxable capital gains at the federal and state levels.

  • If your heirs sell an asset they inherited, any profit could be taxed at the federal level as either a long-term or short-term capital gain, depending on when they dispose of the property.

  • If you do give your heirs a bequest, especially a sizable one, it's a good idea for them to talk with a professional who specializes in estate taxes about the best ways to minimize any potential tax bite.

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