For the first time in over a decade we have permanent federal estate and gift tax rules.

For those of us who didn’t make it to the Heckerling conference in Orlando this year (including me, I usually go every other year), you’ll want a quick and easy way to explain what the heck happened to the estate and gift tax after the fiscal cliff deal. There’s no shortage of folks willing to give you their two cents on the subject, but separating the wheat from the chaff can be challenging.

So I was happy to run across an article by Forbes staff writer Deborah L. Jacobs entitled After The Fiscal Cliff Deal: Estate And Gift Tax Explained. Ms. Jacobs does a good job of explaining the new law in the type of plain English, question-and-answer format, clients like to hear; but she’s also thorough enough to keep an audience of lawyers and CPA’s interested. Good stuff, highly recommend it. Here’s an excerpt.

Who has to pay federal estate tax? Once you’re worth more than a certain amount, taxes shrink your estate. Under the 2010 tax law, we can each transfer up to $5 million tax-free during life or at death. That figure is called the basic exclusion amount, and it is adjusted for inflation. In 2012 it was raised to $5.12 million per person. The new tax law does not change how much you can pass tax-free. On Jan. 11 the IRS announced that, with the inflation adjustment, the estate tax exclusion amount for deaths in 2013 would be $5.25 million.

Do spouses have to pay the tax when they inherit from each other? The new law doesn’t change this either. There is an unlimited deduction from estate and gift tax that postpones the tax on assets inherited from each other until the second spouse dies. This marital deduction, as it is called, applies only if the inheriting spouse is a U.S. citizen.

How much can the second spouse pass tax-free? Here’s where things get a bit complicated — but in a good way. The 2010 tax law gave married couples a wonderful tax break, which the new law has made permanent. Widows and widowers can add any unused exclusion of the spouse who died most recently to their own. This enables them together to transfer up to $10.5 million tax-free. Tax geeks call this portability.

. . .

How does this relate to lifetime gifts? The lifetime gift tax exclusion and the estate tax exclusion are expressed as a total amount – currently $5.25 million per person – and it is possible to use this exclusion (sometimes called the “unified credit”) to transfer assets at either stage or a combination of the two. If you exceed the limit, you (or your heirs) will owe tax of up to 40%.

. . .

Are there lifetime gifts that don’t count? Absolutely, and this is a common source of confusion. We can each give another person $14,000 per year without it counting against the lifetime exemption. (The amount went up at the end of 2012, as I reported here.) Spouses can combine this annual exclusion to double the size of the gift. Don’t confuse it with the basic exclusion–that $5.25 million discussed above.

Added Bonus:

For those of you who live for tax stat’s, you’ll want to read this recently published Congressional Research Service summing up the economics of the current state of affairs as follows:

Compared with the $1 million exemption and 55% rate under pre-EGTRRA law, the new rules lose an average of about $37 billion over the next 10 years, a two-thirds reduction in estate tax revenues. Regardless of the exemption levels considered, few estates are affected by the tax. The estate tax is a highly progressive tax, with about three-fourths collected from estates in which decedents are in the top 1% of the income distribution. At a $5 million exemption, less than 0.2% of estates will be subject to the tax. Although concerns have been raised about the effects of the tax on small businesses and farmers, estimates indicate that only a small share of these decedents would be affected.

. . . . .

Only a small portion of high-income decedents would be affected by the tax under the $5 million exemption.

  • The estate tax will affect less than 0.2% of decedents over the next decade.
  • The estate tax is concentrated among high income taxpayers: 96% is paid by the top quintile, 93% by the top 5%, 72% by the top 1%, and 42% by the top 0.1%.
  • About 0.2% of estates with half or more of their assets in businesses will be subject to the estate tax.
  • About 65 farm estates (or approximately one per state) are projected to be subject to the estate tax, and constitute 1.8% of taxable estates. Less than a fourth (0.4%) is projected to have inadequate liquidity to pay estate taxes. Less than 1% (0.8%) of farm operator estates is projected to pay the tax.
  • About 94 estates (about two per state) with half their assets in small business and who expect their heirs to continue in the business are projected to be subject to the estate tax; they constitute 2.5% of total estates. Less than a half (1.1%) is projected to have inadequate liquidity to pay estate taxes.