The term "estate tax" probably doesn't incite the same amount of rage as the term "death tax," but that's what this state tax is: You die, and then the government taxes a portion of the estate you turn over to your surviving relatives.
The good news is that unless you have a substantial estate nearing that of the country's wealthiest 1% of earners, you don't have to worry about the estate tax. For 2016, the estate tax exemption is $5.45 million. Once the estate owner dies, there isn't much beneficiaries can do to reduce estate taxes, so the time to act is now. Here are some ways to ensure the government doesn't get its hands in your pockets postmortem.
1. Spend the money
Spending your wealth seems like an easy solution, but unless you have a very large estate, it could leave you stranded with less money than you need to last you until your death. Plus there's the fact that it's pretty tough to determine exactly when that will be. Spending the money also isn't the best option for those who want to leave their wealth to family or charity.
2. Leave the money with your spouse
If the estate owner is married, he can leave an unlimited amount of money to his spouse without incurring any tax as long as the spouse is a U.S. citizen. Each taxpayer gets an exemption of $5.43 million in 2015, which is excluded from federal estate tax. Any unused amount of the exemption also passes to the surviving spouse.
"The rules here are complicated, so to ensure both spouses are able to each use the full exemption amount, a living trust or creation of a will with specific provisions may be advisable," said Pamela Kornblatt, president of Tax Strategists, a company that provides personalized tax preparation and advice to start-ups, entrepreneurs, corporations and individuals.
3. Give your money away
"Giving away the money over time to those who would ultimately be the beneficiaries of the estate is a good idea," Kornblatt said. Significant estate tax savings can be achieved by removing assets from the estate beforehand -- in other words, gifting. That's because the gift tax exclusion allows you to give away up to $14,000 per person tax-free.
Gifts for tuition and medical expenses you use for someone else, such as a grandchild, and gifts to political organizations are also exempt from the gift tax, while gifts to qualifying charities can be deducted from the value of the gift(s) made. Several trust structures exist that might be beneficial to employ when giving gifts to charity. The IRS offers answers to frequently asked questions about gift taxes on their site here.
4. Create an estate plan
A few estate-planning techniques are designed to reduce estate taxes and still allow estate holders to gain access to a steady stream of income from those assets while they're still living. These include gifting through a family limited-liability company, or setting up a charitable trust.
Estate planning is tricky, so if you have a sizable estate, it's a good idea to find a financial advisor and a tax attorney to help make sure it's done right.
5. Remove life insurance proceeds from your estate
Life insurance proceeds can usually be included in the insured's estate, significantly boosting its value. "Setting up an irrevocable life insurance trust is another great strategy as it allows the taxpayer to remove the value of his life insurance from the estate," said Kornblatt.
The cost to drafting and implementing this type of trust can be outweighed by the tax savings. Consult a financial planner or tax advisor to determine whether it'll work in your case.
6. Move to a different state
It might be worth considering estate tax when you decide where you'd like to retire. Moving is an extreme option, but for some people it can mean leaving thousands of dollars more to their heirs rather than to the government.
Taxation rules vary widely by state, so look into what rules exist in the state you live, and in states you hope to retire in. The following lists outline which states collect estate tax and inheritance tax.
States that collect estate tax:
- District of Columbia
- New Jersey
- New York
- Rhode Island
States that collect inheritance tax:
- New Jersey
Some states follow the same exemptions as the federal estate tax, while others operate separate from state law, which could leave some residents with state estate tax to pay, even if they're exempt from the federal estate tax.
A final word of advice on estate taxes
As the old saying goes, there's nothing more sure in life than death and taxes. Death taxes, on the other hand, can often be minimized or avoided with careful planning. "Estate planning to minimize tax is an extremely complicated area," Kornblatt said. If you think your estate will be near the cutoff, find a financial planner who can help you develop a plan to ensure that your money goes to your intended recipients.
Ruth Sarreal contributed to the reporting for this article.
This article originally appeared at GoBankingRates.