Trust and Estate Counsel

Tennessee Estate Planning Law

Insight and commentary on estate planning issues impacting affluent residents of Tennessee

Tax Relief Act of 2010 - Part 3 - Temporary $5 Million Estate Tax Exemption

This is the third article of a series dealing with the Tax Relief, Unemployment Insurance Reauthorization, and Job Creation Act of 2010 (“Act”). For the first two articles, see:

Part 1 – Charitable IRA Rollovers
Part 2 – Estate Tax/Carryover Basis Election for 2010 Decedents

The Act temporarily increases the estate tax exemption to $5 million for 2011 and $5 million increased by inflation for 2012. For example, if inflation for 2011 is 2%, the estate tax exemption will be $5.1 million in 2012. The Act decreases the exemption to $1 million for people dying in 2013 or later.

The Act set the maximum federal estate tax rate at 35% for 2011 and 2012, but increases the maximum rate to 55% for 2013 and future years.

The Act is great news for individuals who die in 2011 or 2012. Very few will owe federal estate taxes. However, the huge increase in estate taxes for people dying in 2013 makes estate planning tricky. Earlier this week, I met with a couple whose estate tax liability will increase from $2.9 million under 2011 law to $9 million if the survivor dies in 2013 or later. A large portion of their net worth involves a family business. They have sufficient liquid assets to pay for the 2011 taxes, but not the 2013 taxes. Should they make gifts to try to reduce estate taxes? Should they buy life insurance to provide liquidity to pay the taxes? It is possible that the $5 million exemption and 35% rate will be extended by future legislation. However, it is dangerous to make plans based on hoped for tax decreases to be enacted in the future.

Tennessee has not changed its exemption from inheritance tax. Tennessee’s exemption is still $1 million. Having different exemption amounts for Tennessee inheritance taxes and federal estate taxes is a matter that we have grown accustomed to since 2001. Most married couples deal with the disparate exemptions by transferring $1 million to a traditional credit shelter trust and transferring the difference between the federal exemption and the Tennessee exemption ($4 million under current law) to a Tennessee QTIP Trust. The Executor will make a Tennessee QTIP election for the Tennessee QTIP Trust, but will not make a federal QTIP election. This will ensure that no Tennessee taxes will have to be paid at the first death. Taxes will be payable with respect to the Tennessee QTIP Trust upon the surviving spouse’s death. However, there will not be any federal estate taxes imposed upon the Tennessee QTIP Trust upon the surviving spouse’s death.

Fortunately, most of the revocable trusts and wills that we have prepared for our clients have formulas that adjusted to the new estate tax exemption so that no changes are necessary. There is a very subtle change that we will recommend for people who otherwise need to amend their documents.. Even though it may not be necessary to amend their documents, married couples may need to rearrange ownership of certain assets. Each spouse should have $5 million of assets titled in their name so that the couple will be able to take full advantage of the higher estate tax exemption regardless of which spouse dies first.  A Tennessee Community Property Trust is a good method for dividing assets between the spouses.

The Act has a portability option which allows the surviving spouse to take advantage of any unused estate tax exemption of the first spouse to die. In theory, the portability option makes it unnecessary to rearrange ownership of assets and to fully fund the estate tax exemption of the first spouse to die in a credit shelter trust and/or Tennessee QTIP trust. As drafted, the portability option is a Trojan horse. We will explain in a future article why we do not recommend planning to take advantage of portability.

In summary, the higher estate tax exemption and lower estate tax rates will significantly reduce estate taxes for individuals dying in 2011 and 2012. There is some rearranging that may need to occur in order to take full advantage of the additional exemption.