Open Letter about the 2010 Tax Act

January 7, 2011

Dear Friends:

The estates of wealthy individuals who died in 2010 didn’t pay any federal estate tax, but that situation has changed. Under the recently enacted “Tax Relief, Unemployment Insurance Reauthorization, and Job Creation Act of 2010,” the federal estate tax, which disappeared for 2010, springs back to life this year and is imposed at the top rate of 35% of the estate’s value after the first $5 million. This open letter provides a brief overview of the new law.


The modern estate tax dates back to 1916, when it was imposed at a rate of 10% on the portion of estates above $50,000. Over the following years, the rates and exemption amounts have varied, reaching a high of 77% from 1941 to 1976 with a $60,000 exemption amount. When Ronald Reagan was President, the exemption was raised, and an unlimited marital deduction was introduced.  Over the years, the estate tax exemption became the “applicable exclusion”, and the amount gradually increased over the years.  The applicable exclusion for the estate tax was $1.5 million from 2004 and 2005 and $2 million from 2006 through 2008.  In 2009, the estate tax exclusion was $3.5 million, and it was unlimited in 2010.

New law

During 2011 and 2012, the top gift and estate tax rate will be 35%. For 2011, the exemption amount will be $5 million per individual (indexed for inflation after 2011). At those levels, the vast majority of estates (all but an estimated 3,500 nationwide in 2011) will not be subject to any federal estate tax, and the tax will raise about $11.4 billion for the government. By way of comparison, the 55% tax with a $1 million exemption would have resulted in about 43,540 taxable estates in 2011, and raised about $34.4 billion.

The new law also gives heirs of decedents dying in 2010 a choice of which estate-tax rules to apply – 2010′s or 2011′s. That’s important because although there is no estate tax in 2010, some inherited assets are subject to higher capital gains tax under the 2010 rules, a situation that actually raises the tax burden for some heirs. Inherited assets under the 2010 rules have a tax basis equal to the price when they were purchased (referred to in tax parlance as “carryover basis”) rather than the price at death. That could lead to a significant tax burden for heirs who sell assets such as stocks that had been held for many years and have greatly appreciated in value. Under the 2011 rules, by contrast, heirs will be allowed to inherit assets with a “stepped-up basis.” While most heirs would choose the 2011 regime ($5 million exemption from both estate and generation-skipping tax and an unlimited step-up in the basis of assets to their current market value), the heirs of superrich decedents could find it more advantageous to elect the 2010 law (limited step-up in the basis of assets and no estate tax). If the executor makes the election to have the 2010 rules apply, the estate tax return’s due date will not be earlier than the date that’s nine months after the new law’s enactment date.

For gifts made after December 31, 2010, the gift tax will be reunified with the estate tax. Under the new law, the estate and gift tax exemptions will be reunified starting in 2011, which means that the $5 million estate tax exemption will also be available for gifts. The law in effect prior to 2010 provided a $3.5 million lifetime exemption for estates, but only $1 million for gifts. The gift tax rate, starting in 2011, will be 35%. The exemption from the generation-skipping transfer tax (GST tax) – the additional tax on gifts and bequests to grandchildren when their parents are still alive – will also rise to $5 million from the $1 million it would have been without the new law. The GST tax rate for transfers made in 2011 and 2012 will be 35%.

From a planning standpoint, a nice feature of the new law is that it makes it easier to transfer the $5 million exemption to a surviving spouse, so married couples can shield $10 million of their assets from taxes. In the language of tax professionals, the estate tax exemption will be “portable.”

We encourage everyone to review their estate plan with their estate planning attorney to make sure it is up-to-date, not only in light of the new tax law, but also in light of any changed circumstances relating to the intended beneficiaries.

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