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2019 update: Should you be concerned about the estate tax?

James S. Rizzo, Esq.
Posted 1/22/19

“If you drive a car, I’ll tax the street. If you try to sit, I’ll tax your seat. If you get too cold, I’ll tax the heat. If you take a walk, I’ll tax your feet …” — George Harrison, …

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2019 update: Should you be concerned about the estate tax?

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If you drive a car, I’ll tax the street. If you try to sit, I’ll tax your seat. If you get too cold, I’ll tax the heat. If you take a walk, I’ll tax your feet …” — George Harrison, Tax Man

I frequently tell clients if they have to worry about the estate tax, it’s generally a “good problem to have,” as that means their asset level is quite high. That was not the case however, 10-20 years ago when the estate tax limits were much lower and impacted many middle class families.

Anyone who has dealt with the tax laws knows there are a multitude of nuances, exceptions and so called loopholes that may apply to any given situation, therefore this article should not be taken or used as legal or tax advice. If you believe your assets and estate may fall within the current parameters, you should consult with an estate planning attorney and tax or financial professional to thoroughly review your situation.

What is the Estate Tax? In short, the estate tax is the government’s way of saying you died with too many assets, or with assets that could not be fully valued or taxed except upon your death. Generally speaking, after death the net worth of your estate is calculated by valuing your assets minus liabilities.

Assets can consist of anything of value including but not limited to cash, insurance, real estate, stocks, bonds, annuities, brokerage accounts and business interests. These assets are brought to present fair market value to establish a “gross estate.” Liabilities such as funeral and estate expenses, debts, mortgages and assets lawfully passing to a surviving spouse may all be deducted from your gross estate to come up with your “net estate.”

Will Your Estate be Impacted by the Estate Tax?  While the above may already sound complicated, the good news is the estate tax effects very few people, especially since 2018, when the federal limits over doubled. According to the Tax Policy Center, in 2018 only 1,890 estates in the U.S. – a drastic reduction from prior years – were estimated to be subject to the estate tax.

By comparison, in 2000, an estimated 52,000 estates were effected when the exemption amount was $675,000 according to the 2015 Wealth Transfer Tax System Report. The Tax Policy Center also found that the top 10 percent of income earners pays nearly 90 percent of the tax, with over one-fourth paid by the richest 0.1 percent and even these percentages have shrunken since 2017.

What Are the Current Estate Tax Limits? When President Trump signed the Tax Cut and Jobs Act effective Jan. 1, 2018, the basic federal exclusion amount for 2018 dramatically increased from $5.49 million per person to $11.18 million per person. For 2019, the official IRS website has reported a further increase, to $11.4 million per person and/or $22.8 million per couple. This federal exemption amount remains in effect through 2025, unless there is further legislative action before then.

Not surprisingly, New York also imposes an estate tax. Fortunately however, the New York limits have also increased over the past 20 years similar. although not identical, to the federal limits. The Basic Exclusion Amount for New York State Estate Tax for dates of death on or after Jan. 1, 2019, and before Jan. 1, 2020, has increased from $5.49 million per person to $5.74 million per person or $11.48 million per couple. These amounts are expected to increase further in 2020 and be adjusted for inflation thereafter.  

By contrast, the federal estate tax from 1987 – 1997 was applicable to net estates of “only” $600,000 or more, which cast a far wider tax net over the population. It was not until the last 10 years or so that the limits started increasing substantially. According to the IRS, the basic federal exclusion amounts have increased as follows: $1.5 million (2004-2005), $2 million (2006-2008), $3.5 million (2009), $5 million (2010-2011), $5.12 million (2012), $5.25 million (2013), $5.34 million (2014), $5.43 million (2015), $5.45 million (2016), $5.49 million (2017) and $11.18 million (2018). New York had similar increases during this time period.

While the 2019 estate tax limits effect far fewer people than in recent history, the importance of smart financial and estate planning cannot be emphasized enough. As the late, great Mark Twain said, “A tax is a fine for doing well, a fine is a tax for doing wrong.”  

The late musician Prince’s estate was estimated as having to pay over $100 million alleged in estate tax due to his complete lack of planning. Michael Jackson’s estate continues to battle an estimated $700 million allegedly owed in estate taxes, interest and penalties due to poor planning.

The IRS has recently started an action over Aretha Franklin’s estate, starting with nearly $9 million allegedly owed for back taxes and penalties. While these are extreme examples and far from the norm, it demonstrates that spending a few hours with an estate planning attorney can and is a great idea, whether assets are large or small.

A few examples of options available to assist in insulating assets from the estate tax are: moving certain assets into trust(s) so they are not counted toward your net taxable estate upon death; setting up charitable foundations that survive your death; gifting assets during your lifetime to individuals, charities or other entities to reduce the value of your net estate; and planning for certain assets to shift to your spouse upon death into trust or otherwise.

Of course, all of these examples require careful review by tax and estate planning professionals before implementation to make sure federal and state tax law ramifications have been considered.  

James S. Rizzo is an attorney with the law firm of Hilton Estate & Elder Law, LLC, with offices in Rome, Utica, Lowville and Boonville. He has more than 23 years of legal experience and concentrates in Estate Planning matters, including Wills, Revocable and Irrevocable Trusts, Powers of Attorney, Health Care Proxies, Asset Protection, Nursing Home/Medicaid applications and planning. He can be reached at 315-624-9600 or jsr@hiltonlawny.com for a confidential, free initial consultation. Visit us on the web at: www.hiltonlawny.com.

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