What’s Happening to the Estate Tax?

Proposals now being considered by President Biden may expand the number of Americans who will need to pay the federal estate tax in one of two ways: raising rates and lowering qualifying thresholds on estates and increasing the liability for inheriting and selling assets. It is likely that these changes will raise revenues from the truly wealthy, while also imposing estate taxes on Americans with more modest assets, according to a recent article “It May Be Time to Start Worrying About the Estate Tax” from The New York Times.

Inheritance taxes are paid by the estate of a person who died. Some states have estate taxes of their own, with lower asset thresholds. Illinois, for instance has a separate tax with an exemption of only $4 million and they effective rate above that can be over 20%. As of this writing, a married couple would need to have assets of more than $23.4 million before they had to plan for federal estate taxes. This historically high exemption may be ending sooner than originally anticipated. Even if no new laws are passed this level will roughly drop in half by 2026.

One of the changes being considered is a common tax shelter. Known as the “step-up in basis at death,” this values the assets in an estate at the date of death and disregards any capital gains in a deceased person’s portfolio. Eliminating the step-up in basis would require inheritors to pay capital gains whenever they sold assets, including everything from the family home to stock portfolios.

If you’re lucky enough to inherit wealth, this little item has been an accounting gift for many years. A person who inherits stock doesn’t have to think twice about what their parents or grandparents paid decades ago. All of the capital gains in those shares or any other inherited investment are effectively erased, when the owner dies. There are no capital gains to calculate or taxes to pay.

However, those capital gains taxes are lost revenue to the federal government. Eliminating the step-up rules could potentially generate billions in taxes from the very wealthy but is likely to create financial pain for people who have lower levels of wealth. A family that inherited a home, for instance, would have a much bigger tax burden, even if the home was not a multi-million-dollar property but simply one that gained in value over time.

Reducing the estate tax exemption could lead to wealthy people having to revise their estate plans sooner rather than later. Twenty years ago, the exemption was $675,000 per person and the tax rate was 55%. Over the next two decades, the exemption grew and the rates fell. The exemption is now $11.7 million per person and the tax rate above that amount is 40%.

Lowering the exemption, possibly back to the 2009 level, would dramatically increase tax revenue. There are strategies to lock in the current exemptions before they are reduced.

What is likely to occur and when, remains unknown, but what is certain is that there will be changes to the federal estate tax. Stay up to date on proposed changes and be prepared to update your estate plan accordingly.

My office is fully open if you would like to meet to discuss these issues.

Reference: The New York Times (March 12, 2021) “It May Be Time to Start Worrying About the Estate Tax”


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What Is Prince Harry’s Inheritance from His Mum, Princess Diana?

“I have what my mum left me and without that we wouldn’t have been able to do this,” he said of his and Meghan Markle’s move to the United States.

The Independent’s recent article entitled “Meghan and Harry: How much did Diana leave in inheritance for Harry?” reports that Harry’s comment in the recent interview with his wife Meghan had many viewers who tuned in wondering how much Harry’s mother had left him, after her tragic death at the age of 36.

“It’s like she saw it coming and she’s been with us through this whole process,” Harry said

Diana left an estate of roughly $30 million, but at least a third of that was paid in inheritance tax, leaving nearly $18 million, according to reports. The sum was split equally between William and younger brother Harry. They were 15 and 12, when Diana died in a Paris car crash in 1997.

It is said that the funds were invested by royal advisers, which saw its value go up to around $28 million by the time her sons reached the age when they were able to access it. Upon reaching 25, William and Harry were entitled to all of the income of their share. However, prior to this, the income could be paid at the trustees’ discretion.

The trustees of Princess Diana’s estate had the authority to pay out the assets to William and Harry at any time, but when they each turned 30, they were able to request their full share of the capital, rather than only receiving the interest on that sum.

Diana’s estate was comprised of stocks and shares, jewelry, her multi-million-pound divorce settlement from the boys’ father, Prince Charles, as well as her clothing and personal items. In addition, William and Harry’s great-grandmother, the Queen Mother, also reportedly left them approximately $20 million to divide between them.

Meghan has been said to enter her marriage with around $5 million in earnings from her acting career, which included starring in the USA Network drama, “Suits.”

In September 2020, news was announced that the couple had signed a reported multi-million-dollar deal with Netflix to produce exclusive content, such as documentaries, docuseries, feature films, scripted shows and children’s programming.

More recently, Harry and Meghan agreed to a deal with Spotify to create podcast content.

Reference: The Independent (March 9, 2021) “Meghan and Harry: How much did Diana leave in inheritance for Harry?”


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What are the Options when Inheriting a House?

If you inherit a house, there are tax and financial issues. Yahoo Finance’s recent article from (December 21, 2020) entitled “What to Do When You Inherit a House” gives us some topics to keep in mind if you inherit a house.

Inheritance and Estate Taxes. Inheriting a house doesn’t usually mean any taxes because there’s no federal inheritance tax. But some larger estates may have to pay federal estate taxes. There are also six states that have an inheritance tax: Iowa, Kentucky, Maryland, Nebraska, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. The spouse is exempt from paying inheritance tax, and children and grandchildren are exempt from inheritance tax in four states (not PA or NE).

Capital Gains Taxes. This may be a concern if the heir decides to sell the house. Capital gains taxes are federal taxes on the profits on the sale of assets. Short-term capital gains taxes apply on sale of assets owned for a year or less, and long-term capital gains taxes are for the sale of assets owned for longer. However, when a house is transferred by inheritance, the value of the house is stepped up to its fair market value at the time it was transferred, so that a home purchased many years ago is valued at current market value for capital gains.

Exclusion. Also, if the heir occupies the home as his or her primary residence for at least two out of five years, the IRS may grant an exclusion of up to $500,000 on capital gains taxes for a couple filing jointly or $250,000 for a single filer.

Mortgage. If the home has a mortgage, there will be monthly payments to make.

Reverse Mortgage. If there is a reverse mortgage, a type of home loan available to seniors age 62 and older, the ownership of the home will transfer to the mortgage company when the owner dies.

Short Sale. If the house is underwater, with a mortgage balance more than the home’s value, the new owners may ask the lender to do a short sale, selling the property for less than the loan balance and accepting that amount to settle the debt.

Other Expenses. If the home is paid off, there still could be major repairs to be made before it can be sold or occupied. There are also ongoing costs for property taxes, utilities, residential insurance and maintenance costs, as well as possible home owner association fees.

The Heir’s Options. Three options when a home is inherited are for the heir to occupy it, sell, or rent it. Occupying the home means it will stay in the family, which can be nice if there are memories connected with the property. If there is no mortgage, this can also be an economical option. Selling it provides cash if it’s worth more than the mortgage after any necessary repairs. This is a quick and easy way to make the most of a home inheritance without adding any future risks. Finally, renting it can provide passive income and some tax advantages. However, being a landlord involves costs and dealing with tenants can require a lot of time and attention.

Emotional and Relationship Issues. Inheriting a home that’s been in the family for decades can bring up a lot of feelings for the heirs. If multiple heirs were each bequeathed part ownership, it can be difficult to determine what everyone wants and choose a mutually acceptable course of action.

Heirs can ask for the help of an experienced estate planning attorney to facilitate discussions and to make sure that everyone understands the agreement. My office is open to discuss these and other estate planning issues. We can schedule a live, in person meeting socially distanced in my office or virtually through Zoom if that is more comfortable for you.

Inheriting a house can have tax, financial and emotional considerations to consider, and a lot is dependent on the size of the mortgage, the home’s value and the costs of upkeep.

Reference: Yahoo Finance (Dec. 21, 2020) “What to Do When You Inherit a House”


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