Estate Tax Exemption Amount Goes Up for 2021
As the estate tax exemption amount increases, fewer estates are subject to the federal tax.
The federal estate tax exemption is going up again for 2021. The amount is adjusted each year for inflation, so that's not a surprise. But it's still a big deal when the new exemption is announced each year because there's a lot at stake for certain high-income Americans.
2021 Estate Tax Exemption
Generally, when you die, your estate is not subject to the federal estate tax if the value of your estate is less than the exemption amount. For people who pass away in 2021, the exemption amount will be $11.7 million (it's $11.58 million for 2020). For a married couple, that comes to a combined exemption of $23.4 million.
Estate Tax Rate
As you might guess, only a small percentage of Americans die with an estate worth $11.7 million or more. But for estates that do, the federal tax bill is pretty steep. Most of the estate's value is taxed at a 40% rate.
As the table below shows, the first $1 million is taxed at lower rates – from 18% to 39%. That results in a total tax of $345,800 on the first $1 million, which is $54,200 less than what the tax would be if the entire estate were taxed at the top rate. However, once you get past the first $1 million, everything else is taxed at the 40% rate.
Taxable Amount (Value of Estate Exceeding Exemption)
$0 to $10,000
$10,001 to $20,000
$20,001 to $40,000
$40,001 to $60,000
$60,001 to $80,000
$80,001 to $100,000
$100,001 to $150,000
$150,001 to $250,000
$250,001 to $500,000
$500,001 to $750,000
$750,001 to $1 million
Over $1 million
Historical Estate Tax Exemption Amounts
Since the federal estate tax was reformed in 1976, the estate tax exemption has only gone up (see table below). In most cases, the increase is modest, such as a simple adjustment for inflation. However, at times, the exemption amount has jumped considerably. For example, it shot up from $675,000 to $1 million in 2002, from $1 million to $5 million in 2011, and from $5.49 million to $11.18 million in 2018.
But that pattern is scheduled to change. The 2018 increase is temporary, so the base exemption amount is set to drop back down to $5 million (adjusted for inflation) in 2026. Plus, if Joe Biden is elected president, the federal estate tax exemption might drop back down sooner. He has called for a reduction of the exemption amount to pre-2018 levels.
1977 (Quarters 1 and 2)
1977 (Quarters 3 and 4)
1987 through 1997
2000 and 2001
2002 through 2010
State Estate Taxes
Just because your estate isn't hit with the federal estate tax, that doesn't necessarily mean you're completely off the hook. Your estate might be subject to a state estate tax. Twelve states and the District of Columbia impose their own estate tax, and the state exemption amounts are often much lower than the federal estate tax exemption. For instance, the exemption amount in Massachusetts and Oregon is only $1 million.
Plus, six states levy an inheritance tax, which is paid directly by your heirs. (Maryland has both an estate tax and an inheritance tax!) So, just because your estate isn't worth millions of dollars, you children and grandchildren might end up with less in their pockets when you die than what you're expecting.