New Estate Tax Schedule Provides Limited Relief To Many
On the surface, it appears that many people will be protected from estate taxes in the coming years as the changes enacted by Congress this year become effective. A couple with less than $4 million might expect that their near term tax bill will be modest because of lower rates and, with the exclusion rising to $2 million by 2006, believe they will soon be estate tax-free, but that is something of an illusion.
The top federal marginal rate drops from 55% (60% for those estates subject to the 5% surtax) to 45% by 2009. The federal credit for state death taxes will be phased out by 2005. As a result, the top effective tax rate on residents of states that rely on the federal credit will be the new lower federal rate.
Arguably, the federal estate tax rate reductions are being paid for by the states. Exhibit 1 shows the impact of state death taxes on the federal rate. Through 2004 there is at least a partial credit for taxes paid to a state. Beginning in 2005, there is a deduction available if state taxes are paid.
However, in many states the only tax at death is a tax equal to the federal credit available on the date of the death. As the credit shrinks and then disappears, so will these state death taxes.
But what would happen if a states tax was tied to the current credit and is not phased out along with the federal credit? In Exhibit 1, when we add the top credit-based state marginal rate of 16% to the adjusted federal rate, the effective rate returns to its current range.
At least one state, New York, has a credit-based tax that will not phase out. As other states begin to recognize that the lower federal rates come, effectively, at their expense, they may be tempted to follow New Yorks example.
Just as the lower rates will prove to be an illusion to New Yorkers, the exclusions created by the greatly increased unified credit may also be an illusion for many. As an example, lets take a couple in their early 50s with a $3.75 million estate. Under current law, this is an estate in need of estate planning and life insurance to help pay estate taxes. At first blush, the need for life insurance appears to be temporary. After all, in 2006, the $2 million exclusion will shield their estate from the estate tax.