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Estate Tax Law

Estate taxes are imposed by the federal government and some state governments on the transfer of a person's property upon death. Estate taxes can apply when the decedent has an estate plan such as a will in place, and they can also apply if the decedent dies intestate (meaning without a will or other form of estate plan). A number of states have passed laws requiring the recipients of real estate or personal property to pay taxes on the property that's being inherited. Although these taxes focus on recipients, rather than on the decedent, they are nonetheless considered a form of estate tax. This section contains information and resources on estate taxes as they relate to estate planning and administration. For example, you’ll find a discussion about how to minimize the estate taxes a person pays, an article explaining gift tax laws, an overview of using life insurance to avoid estate taxes, and a link for consulting with an experienced estate planning attorney in your area.


According to the IRS, the estate tax is a tax on your right to transfer property at death. The federal estate tax, in its modern form, was enacted in 1916 and has gone through significant changes, including a temporary repeal in 2001. However, in 2011, the federal estate tax was re-implemented, although with a high threshold that currently stands at over $5 million (meaning that only those property transfers that exceed that amount trigger the federal estate tax).

Arguments For and Against Estate Taxes

Philosophically, some estate tax opponents question why property that belonged to you during life, and which presumably has already been taxed at the time of purchase, should again be taxed when you pass away. Estate tax opponents also ask why property that is obtained through a person's efforts and hard work during life should be taxed simply because he or she passes away. On the other hand, supporters of estate taxes argue that these taxes help to reduce economic inequality, and that the revenue they generate help governments at various levels to pay for necessary public services.

The Basics of Estate Taxes

Note that some forms of estate tax are imposed directly on the decedent's estate, while others focus on the recipients of the property. For example, in some states, estate taxes are imposed upon a person who receives property from the decedent, and the amount imposed can depend on both the value of the property being transferred and on the recipient's relationship to the decedent. As you begin to plan your estate, it's important for you to know the basics about the federal and your state's estate taxes, so that you make decisions that minimize the amount of tax that's paid either by your estate or by your inheritors. Depending on the purpose or type of estate plan you create, you may be able to transfer money and other property while avoiding taxes such as the gift tax. For example, one type of estate plan allows a person to create an account dedicated to providing school tuition to another person. This type of account generally avoids gift taxes.

How an Attorney Can Help

If you have questions about estate taxes, such as questions about how to minimize your liability and questions about estate plan options during your lifetime, an attorney can help. He or she can also help you to create an estate plan that best suits your needs. This section provides a link for consulting with an experienced estate planning attorney in your area.

Learn About Estate Tax Law