Only the richest American families need to worry about the federal estate tax, which applies only to very large estates. For 2020 deaths, only estates of more than $11.58 million may owe tax, and married couples can exempt twice that amount. (This exemption amount will rise each year to adjust for inflation.) But many estates that don’t owe federal tax do owe a separate state estate tax. It depends on where the deceased person lived and owned property.
These states collect their own tax on residents’ estates:
Each state taxes estates that exceed a certain value. In all states, that value is lower than the exemption for federal estate taxes ($11.58 million in 2020). So your estate could owe state estate taxes, even if it does not owe federal estate taxes.
Many state tax exemption amounts have changed in the last few years. To get the most up-to-date numbers, check online, at the website of your state’s taxing authority.
Estate tax is assessed on the total value of everything the deceased person owned at death. This includes all the obvious assets, like real estate and bank accounts, plus some that aren’t so obvious—for example, the proceeds of a life insurance policy that the deceased person owned.
If the value of the gross estate (that’s everything, not counting deductions that the estate may be allowed to take on the estate tax return) is greater than the state’s exemption amount, the executor must file a state estate tax return. The value of the assets is determined as of the date of death, unless the state allows the executor to choose an alternate valuation date. When the estate tax return is prepared (this is a job for experts), deductions from the gross estate may reduce the value of the taxable estate so much that it’s below the estate tax exempt amount. If that happens, the estate won’t owe any tax, though it must still file the estate tax return.
For example, if someone who lives in Massachusetts, which exempts estates of $1 million, leaves a gross estate of $2 million, an estate tax return will have to be filed. But if most or all of the property was left to the surviving spouse (or to a tax-exempt charity), then no tax will be owed, because those amounts aren’t taxed. The estate would have to file an estate tax return, but wouldn’t owe any tax.
Most states require estate tax returns to be filed within nine months after the death, which is the same time that federal estate tax returns are due to the IRS. Some states grant (automatically or if the executor requests it) an extension to file, but the estimated tax must be paid by the original deadline. Interest accrues on any unpaid tax.
The federal government does not impose an inheritance tax, but a few states do. Inheritance tax doesn’t depend on the total amount of the estate; instead, it depends on who inherits the property. The surviving spouse is exempt from inheritance tax in all states. Some states tax the deceased person’s children, but at a low rate. People who are more distantly related, or who aren’t related at all, are taxed at a higher rate.
Learn more about state inheritance tax.