Estate taxes no longer a focus of planning

Baird Brown
Baird Brown

Maybe I’ve been doing this work far too long.

A short 43 years ago, estate planning — estate tax planning in particular —  was a focus for many clients.

In 1975, the highest estate tax rate was 77 percent for estate transfers in excess of $10 million. The amount exempt from estate taxes was $60,000 per individual. A marital deduction for transfers to a spouse was equal to 50 percent of the amount transferred.

I recognize inflation has increased — $1 in 1975 would be worth $4.75 today. That means the 1975 exemption of $60,000 would be $285,000 today if it simply stayed constant.

It has not stayed constant. For a person dying in 2018, the exemption is $11,180,000. The marital deduction is unlimited. The amount an individual can pass tax free has outpaced inflation. The amount subject to a federal estate tax has declined steadily over the last 43 years. Moreover, there’s pressure to eliminate the federal estate tax.

Colorado historically imposed an inheritance tax. It was equal to the amount of credit the federal government gave the estate of a decedent. The estate of a decedent paid two taxes — a federal estate tax and state inheritance tax. The total tax paid was the same. It was split between two taxing entities because the use of the credit paid to Colorado for an inheritance tax was eliminated effective for those dying after Jan. 1, 2005.

With the exception of the extremely wealthy, the estate tax isn’t much of a focus — although the higher exclusion is set to expire for decedents dying on or after Jan. 1, 2026 to the 2017 amount of $5,490,000 adjusted for inflation.

So, what are clients focusing on instead?

Income tax is apparently here to stay. The income tax rates for trusts are higher at lower thresholds. At $12,500, the next dollar of trust income is taxed at 37 percent. Individuals don’t reach the 37 percent bracket until their income is over $500,000. Protecting assets by placing them into a trust requires special planning to minimize the amount of income tax paid.

Many people strive to protect any inheritance given to an heir from creditors and spouses of their heirs. Instead of giving an inheritance outright, assets are placed into trusts, where a creditor or spouse of an heir has a difficult time reaching. Others create incentives for their heirs — ruling from the grave — to do good for themselves. It might be earning a college degree or not overspending. Grandchildren and educating them also has become an important consideration in planning.

While some clients are more charitable minded, others are spending their money through a variety of other ways, such as travel.

The bottom line: We’re seeing a change in focus in planning. Estate taxes are no longer a concern most clients.