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Estate Tax: Definition, Tax Rates and Who Pays

Several states have this tax on the transfer of property after death. Know whether the rules and thresholds apply.
Tina Orem
Kay Bell
By Kay Bell and  Tina Orem 
Updated
Edited by Chris Hutchison

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What is the federal estate tax?

Also known as the "death tax," the federal estate tax is a tax that's levied on a dead person's inherited assets. The estate tax ranges from rates of 18% to 40% and generally only applies to assets over $13.61 million in 2024.

Thirteen states levy an estate tax. An estate's value can determine whether it's exempt from the tax or not, and those thresholds can vary from state to state.

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Estate tax limits and exemptions

The IRS exempts estates of less than $13.61 million from the tax in 2024 ($12.92 million in 2023), so few people actually end up paying it.

Internal Revenue Service. Rev. Proc. 2022-38. Accessed Oct 21, 2022.
If you inherit stocks, cash, or small amounts of other assets, unless they add up to $13.61 million in 2024, you probably won't have to pay the estate tax. 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%.

To see if your state has an estate tax, check the state estate tax chart below, and refer to your state's department of revenue and taxation website for the most up-to-date information.

How the federal estate tax works

The federal estate tax is assessed on the current fair market value of the assets.

Internal Revenue Service. Frequently Asked Questions on Estate Taxes. Accessed May 18, 2022.
In other words, the tax is calculated based on what the assets are worth today, not the original value at the time of purchase.

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Assets inherited by the surviving spouse are generally not subject to the federal estate tax because of the unlimited marital deduction.

Internal Revenue Service. Instructions for Form 706. Accessed May 18, 2022.

IRS Form 706 also has the details on exactly which assets count in the calculations for the federal estate tax, how to find their value and how to calculate what you owe. 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.

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.

» Think you'll need help? See our list of the best financial advisors

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.

Estate tax exemptions by state

State

2023 exemption amount

2024 exemption amount

Connecticut

$12.92 million.

$13.61 million.

District of Columbia

$4.52 million.

$4.71 million.

Hawaii

$5.49 million.

$5.49 million.

Illinois

$4 million.

$4 million.

Maine

$6.41 million.

$6.8 million.

Maryland

$5 million.

$5 million.

Massachusetts

$1 million.

$2 million.

Minnesota

$3 million.

$3 million.

New York

$6.58 million.

$6.94 million.

Oregon

$1 million.

$1 million.

Rhode Island

$1.73 million.

$1.77 million.

Vermont

$5 million.

$5 million.

Washington

$2.19 million.

$2.19 million.

Source: The American College of Trust and Estate Counsel

The American College of Trust and Estate Counse. State Death Tax Chart. Accessed Jan 30, 2024.

What is the difference between an inheritance tax and an estate tax?

A few states have an inheritance tax, which is different from an estate tax. Inheritance taxes are paid by heirs or inheritors generally upon receiving the inherited assets. An estate tax, on the other hand, is a tax levied on the entire taxable estate itself. Executors of the estate use Form 706 to figure the amount owed.

Internal Revenue Service. Instructions for Form 706 (09/2022). Accessed Sep 14, 2022.

  • 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 the 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 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 an estate tax or inheritance tax, you have many relocation options.

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.

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