What is Estate Tax?

All property, no matter the form of ownership, (and certain powers) that a person has at the time of his/her death is subject to the federal estate tax.

The estate tax is payable by your estate. It is usually paid by the estate of the decedent before property is distributed to the beneficiaries of the estate. Barring an extension, the estate tax is due within nine months after death.

Estate Tax Exclusions

Although most of a decedent's assets are included in the gross estate, there are some exclusions. If a person leaves all of their property outright to a spouse, there is no federal estate tax liability. This is known as a marital deduction.

If a person leaves property to a tax-exempt charity, there is no tax.

Several other smaller exepnses are deductible, such as probate administration costs, debts on the property, and funeral expenses.

Who Pays Estate Taxes?

The majority of Americans will never have to pay federal estate taxes. In fact, this tax only affects the wealthiest two percent of Americans.

For 2014, the personal estate tax exemption is raised to $5,340,000, per person, with a tax rate of 40%.  For 2013, the threshold was $5.25 million, with a top tax rate of 40%. (The basic exclusion amount is adjusted for inflation.)

How to Calculate and File

Calculating federal estate tax can be complicated, so it is advisable to contact a tax professional or estate tax attorney for help. An estate planning attorney can help walk you through the process, inform you about any new laws, and complete the filing for you.

However, if you prefer to contact an attorney later and in the meantime, would like to get an idea of what you might owe, there are a number of online estate tax calculators that can give you a good idea of what to expect. To calculate estate taxes using an online calculator, you’ll need as much information as possible about cash and investment accounts, retirement accounts, life insurance proceeds, vested stock options, the value of your home, vehicles, and other assets, your liabilities, charitable bequests, unused federal estate tax exemptions, and taxable gifts.

If you decide to file on your own, the IRS form you use is IRS Form 706. When preparing the return, keep in mind that you are filing for an estate that has a gross (not net) value beyond the estate tax exemption amount. The estate tax return is due nine months after the date of death. If you need more time, you can pay the estimated tax before the due date and file for a six-month extension—if requested before the due date. For help in filing, read IRS Publication 950.

State Estate Taxes

While an estate may not owe federal estate tax, probably due to the generous personal exemption amount, there are seventeen states and the District of Columbia that impose their own estate taxes and a person won't have to be rich to owe.

As of 2013, the seventeen states include: New Jersey, Rhode Island, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New York, Oregon, Illinois, Vermont, Washington, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Wisconinsin, Tennessee, and North Carolina.