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What's the Difference Between Estate Tax vs. Inheritance Tax?

Estate Planning
Multiple generations sitting on a couch discussing estate tax vs. inheritance tax

Estate taxes and inheritance taxes can add to the sting of losing a loved one, but not everyone has to pay them. The difference between estate tax and inheritance tax is significant, and understanding how each one works may help you to plan ahead. After learning the basics, consider discussing the details with a financial or legal representative and your family.

Estate Tax vs. Inheritance Tax

These terms may sound like they refer to the same thing, but there are important distinctions between these taxes. The primary differences are who pays the tax and who receives the funds.

A deceased person's estate pays estate taxes, and the recipient might be the federal government or a state government. Beneficiaries pay inheritance taxes to state governments, although not all states have inheritance taxes. In some cases, neither type of tax may be due.

What Are Estate Taxes?

An estate tax is a tax based on the net value of a deceased person's assets at the time of death. That includes money or property like real estate, collectibles, financial accounts and other assets. Debts, such as a mortgage loan, can reduce an estate's value, and there may be other adjustments resulting from various situations. The deceased person's estate is responsible for paying estate taxes before distributing assets to beneficiaries.

Federal estate tax rates start at 18% and increase to 40%, and state estate taxes vary by state. Fortunately, many families don't have to pay estate tax. Here's some more information on how federal and state estate taxes work:

  • Federal estate tax: The IRS sets a threshold for taxable estates, and only estates above that value need to file estate tax returns. For 2019, if the decedent is a U.S. citizen or resident, a return is generally only required for estates worth more than $11.4 million. If your estate is smaller than that exemption threshold, you would typically not owe federal estate taxes, but you could potentially owe an inheritance tax.

  • State estate tax: Twelve states and the District of Columbia have estate taxes. Those states are Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington. Each state's exemption amount is different, and those amounts range from $1 million to $5.6 million.

The guidelines described here cover many scenarios, but it can help to discuss your situation with a tax or legal professional.

What Are Inheritance Taxes?

An inheritance tax is a tax you pay on assets received from a deceased person's estate. Only six states currently impose inheritance taxes: Iowa, Kentucky, Maryland, Nebraska, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

An inheritance tax is the responsibility of those who receive assets after somebody dies — not the estate. As a result, the amount each person pays may vary depending on how much they receive. If you receive an inheritance, check with your state to learn about any requirements for paying inheritance taxes.

Even in states with inheritance taxes, you might be able to receive assets without paying any tax. For example, Maryland allows property to pass to a surviving spouse, lineal descendants and others with no inheritance tax due.

Example of Estate Tax vs. Inheritance Tax

This fictional example may help you to better understand how estate and inheritance taxes work. Say Pat dies with $1 million in assets, and she owes $200,000 on a real estate loan. As a result, her net estate is $800,000 (you often subtract debts from the gross estate, but a tax or legal professional can help you understand your unique situation). All assets pass to Pat's lifelong friend, Jane.

Estate tax: $800,000 is well below the IRS threshold of $11.4 million, so no federal estate tax is due in this case. Pat's state exemption amount is $3.5 million, so she does not have assets above that level.

Inheritance tax: Pat lives in a state with an inheritance tax. That state charges 10% on transfers to individuals who are not relatives of the deceased person (or who are otherwise exempt from paying taxes). Therefore, Jane must pay $80,000. If Jane was Pat's daughter, the assets might pass without any inheritance tax, depending on state law.

Different Taxes for Different Situations

These tax types may both arise after somebody dies with assets. But there is a big difference between estate tax and inheritance tax, and you might not have to pay taxes in some cases. Estate planning can help you predict what an estate may owe, and it can help your beneficiaries plan for their futures. Consider speaking with a tax or legal professional for more information.

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Information provided is general and educational in nature, and all products or services discussed may not be provided by Western & Southern Financial Group or its member companies (“the Company”). The information is not intended to be, and should not be construed as, legal or tax advice. The Company does not provide legal or tax advice. Laws of a specific state or laws relevant to a particular situation may affect the applicability, accuracy, or completeness of this information. Federal and state laws and regulations are complex and are subject to change. The Company makes no warranties with regard to the information or results obtained by its use. The Company disclaims any liability arising out of your use of, or reliance on, the information. Consult an attorney or tax advisor regarding your specific legal or tax situation.