How can you avoid estate tax?
Estates worth more than a certain amount can be eligible for estate tax. While this can be frustrating, you can take some simple steps to avoid paying this extra tax.
If you’ve amassed a valuable estate over your lifetime, the last thing you want is an unexpected tax burden. But, if your estate’s value is over a certain level, you may be liable to pay an additional estate tax.
Although this can be an unplanned expense, there are some simple and easy steps you can take to minimize or avoid the estate tax you need to pay.
What is estate tax?
The estate tax is a tax on estates worth more than a certain amount. When an estate passes into the hands of an estate executor—somebody who ensures a person’s wealth and assets are used in the way the individual intended—they will assess the estate's value. Then, they will pay any tax if it is eligible.
While the estate tax might seem like any other tax, most people will never need to worry about it. This is because some states don’t collect any estate tax, and the valuation threshold is high for those that do.
In 2023, the tax threshold is $12.92 million, or $25.84 million for couples. So, if your estate’s value is less than this, you won’t need to pay the estate tax.
If your estate’s value exceeds this level, you must pay estate tax on any value above this amount. There are 12 estate tax brackets, beginning at 18 percent and running through to 40 percent, meaning you can be charged at any of these amounts depending on the value of your estate.
Estate tax v inheritance tax
Estate tax is often confused with inheritance tax, but these taxes are levied against different people. The estate tax is a tax that applies to your estate, with the money coming directly from your assets. On the other hand, the inheritance tax is levied against the heirs of your assets, often the next-of-kin.
The inheritance tax isn’t common in the US and only exists in six states. It is also calculated differently, predominantly affecting more distant relatives of the deceased. It is also taxed at different brackets, varying from single digits up to 18 percent.
Which states charge estate tax?
Only 13 US states levy an estate tax, meaning that if you die as a resident in any of the following states, the executor of your estate may need to pay this tax:
District of Columbia
How to avoid estate tax
There are a few ways to reduce your estate's value and minimize the tax you pay. Here are seven things you can do to reduce the value of your estate.
1. Give gifts to your family
Over your lifetime, you can give up to $12.92 million of your wealth as gifts before becoming eligible for the gift tax. While the tax-free amount you can gift to an individual can change, in 2023, you can give up to $17,000 a year, or $34,000 if you’re married and filing jointly, to an individual without paying tax.
There’s also no limit to the number of people you can give financial gifts to, so over time, you can eventually give enough of your assets away to have your estate valued below the estate tax threshold.
2. Make charitable donations
Making a charitable donation can reduce the value of your estate and help you earn a charitable donation tax deduction. There are two main ways of donating a part of your estate to charity: The first is through a charitable lead trust (CLT), and the second is through a charitable remainder trust (CRT).
With a CLT, you’ll donate some of your assets directly to a tax-exempt charity. This lowers the value of your estate and gives you a further income tax deduction as long as you document your donation.
With a CRT, you donate stocks, shares, or any other appreciable asset to a charity. With the addition of exempting you from capital gains tax, donating through a CRT works in largely the same way as with a CLT donation but allows you to donate investments, rather than assets, to a charity.
3. Set up a family partnership trust
If you own a business or another important asset that you would like your children to own, you could consider setting up a partnership and making your children limited partners. This means that your children will gain ownership of key assets once you are gone through your family partnership.
4. Get married
Many US taxes come with exemptions depending on your filing status, and estate taxes are the same.
For example, while the estate tax threshold for a single filer is $12.92 million, this threshold doubles if you jointly file your taxes as a couple. This can substantially raise the estate tax threshold, meaning much of your estate will be tax-free. Compare single vs. married tax rates here.
5. Fund a 529 account
A 529 account is a tax-advantaged saving account designed to cover some of the educational costs of the person whose account the funds are being deposited into.
Different states have different lifetime contribution levels, so you may be limited in how much you can donate to an individual account. Still, you can donate $17,000 per person per year without it being eligible for gift tax. You can also accelerate five years of gifts to donate $85,000 per beneficiary in 2023 without it becoming eligible for taxation.
You can also open a custodial account on behalf of a minor. However, your donations will remain part of your estate until the beneficiary is old enough to take control of the account.
Consider moving states
While likely not the ideal solution for many, most US states do not collect estate or inheritance tax, meaning simply moving to another state can reduce the amount of tax you are liable for.
Spend your assets
One of the quickest ways to reduce the value of your estate is simply to spend down your assets. However, you can use your assets to finance various activities if you prefer not to donate them.
Charlie Barton is a writer at Unbiased. He has been writing about personal finance and investing since 2017, with extensive knowledge of platforms and products. Charlie has a first-class degree from the London School of Economics.