- Written by Marni Jameson Marni Jameson
Benjamin Franklin once wrote, “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”
He was right. Although going to great lengths to avoid either is a proverbial waste of time, tax and estate-planning experts often hear of folks who tried to “dodge the taxman” to maximize what they would leave to their heirs.
Such efforts often backfire.
One of the most common ways people try to avoid having their money go to the government when they die is to hide cash.
However, when your money is in cash outside the protection of a financial institution ― as in, stuffed under a mattress, in a plastic bag in the freezer, under a stair tread, or in a safe-deposit box to which multiple people have access ― it is unlikely to wind up going where you want it to go, say seasoned trust and estate-planning experts.
The first person who gets to it will bury it in a hole in the backyard and claim they never saw it or that the safe-deposit box was empty when they got to it: game over.
Better options exist.
Just as you can reduce your income tax through deductions, exemptions, and credits, you can use similar legal vehicles to reduce estate taxes. Here are some options:
Know the limits. First, find out whether your estate will owe anything. Realistically, most estates don’t have to pay the estate tax because the limits are so high.
Straightaway, under today’s guidelines, every individual has an exemption credit of $11.7 million. That means they can gift that amount directly to their heirs without owing any federal estate taxes.
For married couples, that exemption is over $23 million. So, unless you will be leaving more than that, paying federal estate tax is not a concern.
If an individual leaves more than $11.7 million, only the amount over that is subject to tax. But those taxes are steep: The federal estate tax was up to 40% in 2021. (Because these numbers change, be sure to consult your accountant or estate attorney.)
Check state law. Whether your estate will owe state taxes depends on where you live.
According to the Tax Foundation, the following 12 states plus the District of Columbia have estate taxes: Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington.
The following six have inheritance taxes: Iowa, Kentucky, Maryland, Nebraska, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. (Maryland is the only state that has both.)
Spouses are protected. If you’re married when you die, a marital deduction lets you leave your estate, regardless of its size, to your spouse tax-free.
Leave some to charity. If avoiding taxes is your top concern, one option is to donate any amount beyond the taxable threshold to charity. Such contributions are 100% tax-free and, thus, can greatly reduce what a person’s estate will owe in taxes.
Set up a charitable remainder trust. Work with an adviser to create a charitable remainder trust, which takes assets from the donor’s estate to set up a separate trust.
That trust creates an income stream back to the donor or to his or her beneficiaries while they are alive, and then the remainder goes to a designated charity.
Get life insurance. If you’re among those who have more than $11.7 million to leave to loved ones, consider buying a life insurance policy.
Life insurance can be set up so it’s estate-tax-free, which makes it a great planning tool.
With good planning, you can get both spouses’ tax exemptions, throw in life insurance, and avoid all taxes, say experts.
Consider creating a trust. Having assets in a trust (a legal entity that holds assets on behalf of an individual) adds greater asset protection than a simple will does.
Besides helping insulate an estate from paying taxes, a properly created trust can protect assets from creditors and prevent money from going to those outside the bloodline.
Putting cash in the freezer or under a stair tread doesn’t do any of that. It’s simply bad planning.
Marni Jameson is a nationally syndicated home and lifestyle columnist and author of six books, including the just-released What to Do With Everything You Own to Leave the Legacy You Want ― From-the-Heart Estate Planning for Everyone, Whatever Your Situation (https://theexperimentpublishing.com/catalogs/spring-2021/what-to-do-with-everything-you-own-to-leave-the-legacy-you-want/). You may reach her at marnijameson.com.