Even if your spouse has died and left all their assets to you and no estate tax is due, you still need to file an estate tax return. Doing so may save your family significant sums in estate taxes after your death, according to a recent article from Forbes, “5 Reasons You Must File An Estate Tax Return (Even When No Tax Is Due).”
The estate tax is a one-time tax due nine months after the date of death. The federal threshold in 2023 is $12,920,000 for an individual. Many states have their own estate taxes, with thresholds ranging from $1 million in Oregon and Massachusetts to $12,920,000 in Connecticut. Your estate planning attorney can advise which assets are included in calculating this amount. For example, many people are surprised to learn that proceeds from their life insurance policies are taxable on their death, unless the policy is owned in an irrevocable trust.
No estate tax is due if your assets are left to your surviving spouse because of the unlimited marital deduction. You get an unlimited deduction for the assets left to your spouse. Spouses can leave any amount to their surviving spouse tax-free, whether $2 or $2 million. However, there are reasons to file an estate tax return. The law requires it, even if the value of your estate assets is below the filing threshold.
If you’ve done estate planning, your spouse most likely has a trust that will break into various sub-trusts upon her death. As the surviving spouse, you’ll need to fund those trusts and apportion assets to them, which is done through the estate tax return. The estate tax return establishes the value of what those trusts are funded with.
Critical tax elections. When you file an estate tax return for your spouse, you’ll make certain elections to determine what assets are included in your estate when you die.
Tax savings for heirs. If your spouse has not used up all their $12,920,000 exemption, you can lock in their unused portion and port it to your estate tax return when you die. The portability of the deceased spouse’s unused exemption could potentially save your children millions of dollars in estate taxes in the future.
The combined exemption for two spouses is currently $25,840,000. The federal estate tax rate can be as high as 40%. By locking in the unused exemption, you could save more than $5 million in estate taxes that would otherwise be due on your death. Even if your assets are not in the $12 million to $25 million range, this is still smart because your assets could increase in value, and the estate tax thresholds are scheduled to drop to $5 million in 2026 (adjusted for inflation).
More tax savings for grandchildren. If your spouse has yet to use all of their general-skipping transfer tax (GST Tax) exemption, you can lock in their remaining GST Tax exemption. The GST Tax is a 40% tax on assets, if you “skip” your children and leave them directly to your grandchildren or in a trust that will eventually be distributed to them. The amount of GST Tax exemption is the same as the estate tax exemption, $12,920,000 per person in 2023. Therefore, the amount is the same, but they are different taxes.
Reference: Forbes (May 10, 2023) “5 Reasons You Must File An Estate Tax Return (Even When No Tax Is Due)”