Will my estate have to pay taxes after I die?
It depends. The federal government imposes estate taxes at your death only if your property is worth more than a certain amount based on the year of death. By some estimates this means about 99% of estates do not pay any estate tax. In 2013, the exemption limit is $5,250,000. Estates worth more than $5,250,000 are taxed at 40%. For married couples the exemption is $10.5 million. There are a couple of important exceptions to the general rule. All property left to a spouse is exempt from the tax, as long as the spouse is a U.S. citizen and estate taxes won't be assessed on any property you leave to a tax-exempt charity.
Do states also impose estate taxes?
Most states impose estate taxes of some kind. In many cases, there's a state inheritance tax only where a federal estate tax would apply. But some states have estate taxes that are "uncoupled" from the federal tax, and some have inheritance taxes.
Inheritance taxes are paid by your inheritors, not your estate. Typically, how much they pay depends on their relationship to you.
How can I minimize federal estate taxes?
There are several ways. One common way to do this is to leave your children, directly or in trust, an amount up to the estate tax exemption amount ($5,250,000 in 2013 and $5,120,000 in 2012) and the balance to your spouse.
Can I avoid paying state estate taxes?
In most states that base inheritance taxes on the federal estate tax, steps that avoid federal tax also avoid state tax. If your state imposes some other kind of estate tax, your professional advisor can help you minimize state tax by taking actions specifically adapted to that tax.
If you live in two states, for instance, Florida in winter and summer in New Jersey, your inheritors may be able to save on estate taxes if you make your legal residence in the state with lower inheritance taxes.
Can I just give all my property away before I die and avoid estate taxes?
You can give up to $14,000 in 2013 per person per year with no gift tax liability. Gifts exceeding that amount are counted against a gift tax exemption of $5,250,000. Gifts exceeding that exemption are subject to gift tax. At your death, these gifts could become your taxable estate (with a credit for gift tax paid).
There are, however, a few exceptions to this rule. You can give an unlimited amount of property to your spouse, unless your spouse is not a U.S. citizen, in which case you can give away up to $100,000 indexed; the 2013 amount is $143,000 ($139,000 in 2012) per year free of gift tax. Any property given to a tax-exempt charity avoids federal gift taxes. And money spent directly for someone's medical bills or school tuition is exempt as well.