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Estate Planning > Determining Potential Estate Taxes

Estate Planning Basics  |  Fundamental Questions  |  Will or Living Trust?  |  Other Facts  |  Potential Estate Taxes  |  Probate

The next step is to understand some estate tax basics. First you need to get an idea of what your estate is worth and whether you need to worry about estate taxes, both under today's rates and as exemptions increase over the next several years.

How much is your estate worth? The first step is to add up all of your assets. Use Chart 1, and include cash, stocks and bonds, notes and mortgages, annuities, retirement benefits, your personal residence, other real estate, partnership interests, life insurance, automobiles, artwork, jewelry, and collectibles. If you are married, prepare a similar chart for your spouse's assets. And be careful to review how you title the assets, to include them correctly in each spouse's chart.

Totaling up your estate

Chart 1
Totaling up your estate 
Cash $____________
Stocks and bonds $____________
Notes and mortgages $____________
Annuities $____________
Retirement benefits $____________
Personal residence $____________
Other real estate $____________
Partnerships, business interests $____________
Life insurance you own $____________
Automobiles $____________
Artwork $____________
Jewelry $____________
Other (furniture, collectibles, etc.) $____________
Gross estate $__________

If you own an insurance policy at the time of your death, the proceeds on that policy usually will be includable in your estate. Remember: That's proceeds. Your $1 million term insurance policy that isn't worth much while you're alive is suddenly worth $1 million on your death. If your estate is large enough, a significant share of those proceeds may go to the government as taxes, not to your chosen beneficiaries, though the estate tax impact will decrease gradually under the 2001 tax act. (See Chart 2.)

How the estate tax system works

Here's a simplified way to compute your estate tax exposure. Take the value of your estate, net of any debts. Also subtract any assets that will pass to charity on your death — such transfers are deductions for your estate. Then if you are married and your spouse is a U.S. citizen, subtract any assets you will pass to him or her. Those assets qualify for the marital deduction and avoid estate taxes until the surviving spouse dies. The net number represents your taxable estate.

You can pass up to the exemption amount during your life or at death free of gift and estate taxes. This amount will increase until the estate tax is eliminated in 2010. (See Chart2.) But note that the gift tax exemption does not increase beyond $1 million, and even in 2010, the gift tax is not repealed — so lifetime gifts of more than $1 million will be subject to tax.

If your taxable estate is equal to or less than the exemption and you haven't already used any of the exemption on lifetime gifts, no federal estate tax will be due when you die. But if your estate exceeds this amount, it will be subject to estate tax. (See Chart 3 for 2005 marginal rates.) The top rate will gradually decrease through 2007. (See Chart 2.)

Year Gift tax exemption Estate1 and GST tax exemptions Highest estate, GST and gift tax rates Estate tax on $2.5 million Estate tax on $5 million
2004 $1million $1.5 million 48% $465,000 $1,665,000
2005 $1million $1.5 million 47% $460,000 $1,635,000
2006 $1million $2 million 46% $230,000 $1,380,000
2007 $1million $2 million 45% $225,000 $1,350,000
2008 $1million $2 million 45% $225,000 $1,350,000
2009 $1million $3.5 million 45% $0 $675,000
2010 $1million (repealed) 35% (gift tax only) $0 $0
2011 $1million $1 million2 55%3 $680,000 $2,045,000
1 Less any gift tax exemption already used.
2 The GST tax exemption is indexed for inflation.
3 The benefits of the graduated estate and gift tax rates and exemptions are phased out for estates/gifts over $10 million.
Source: U.S. Internal Revenue Code

2005 gift and estate tax rates 

Taxable estate (after deductions) 2005 tax Marginal tax rate (tax on next dollar)
$1.5 million $ 0 45%
$2.0 million $225,000 47%
Source: U.S. Internal Revenue Code