Should death be taxing? Amid budget surpluses, states started slashing income taxes last year. But only two have made significant changes to their estate or inheritance taxes so far. Last year Iowa legislators decided to phase out the state’s inheritance tax by January 1, 2025. And this year Nebraska legislators made pro-taxpayer tweaks to its inheritance tax for deaths occurring on or after January 1, 2023.
Other jurisdictions have lessened the tax bite for dying in 2022—through previously scheduled changes or inflation adjustments. But some, without inflation adjustments, are still taxing estates at levels that haven’t budged for years, meaning more families are getting surprise death tax bills. In one of those states—Massachusetts—Democratic legislators are pushing for changes to spare more estates from the tax as part of a broader tax reform package this summer.
In all, 17 states and the District of Columbia levy estate and/or inheritance taxes. Maryland is the outlier that levies both. If you live in one of these states—or might retire to one—pay attention.
These taxes operate separately from the federal estate tax, which applies only to a couple of thousand estates a year valued at over $12.06 million per person. (That number is set to drop roughly in half on January 1, 2026, when the Trump tax cuts that temporarily doubled the base exemption from $5 million to $10 million expire.) While few individuals need to plan around the federal estate tax, the state levies all kick in at much lower dollar levels, often making it a middle-class problem.
Consider the current state estate tax in Massachusetts. The $1 million estate tax exemption hasn’t been adjusted for inflation since 2006, so it can hit the heirs of middle-class folks who have seen their houses and retirement accounts appreciate. “You can be real estate rich with a modest home, and your estate could be subject to this,” says Scott Cashman, a tax manager with Bowditch & Dewey in Worcester, Massachusetts. “It’s becoming more of an issue every year.” If the $1 million exemption amount set in 2006 had been adjusted for inflation, it would be closer to $1.5 million today.
Say a widow or widower died with a house worth $535,000, a $200,000 bank account, a $350,000 retirement account, and a $15,000 car, for a $1.1 million gross estate. Assuming $50,000 in deductions, the estate tax would be $20,500, he calculates. (There’s no estate tax when assets are left to a spouse, but in this case the heirs are children.) If the house is worth $1 million, however, the tax would be $65,360— one third of the cash in the bank. Adding to the pain is what’s known as the cliff: Once the $1 million mark is crossed, the estate tax applies to everything over $40,000. “I don’t know if most legislators understand that,” he says.
A bill introduced by Democratic state senators would double the Massachusetts exemption amount to $2 million and only levy tax above that amount, removing the dreaded cliff. “We have such a surplus now, this is the time to do it,” says Cashman. “There’s broad-based support for reform.”
Inheritance taxes—levied in six states—can kick in at far lower levels, with the exemption and tax rate depending on the heir’s relationship to the deceased. In New Jersey, for example, if you leave your estate to a Class D beneficiary—including a nephew or non-civil-union partner—they’re taxed at 15% on assets up to $700,000 and 16% on assets above $700,000.
In Nebraska, lawmakers this year fell short of inheritance tax repeal but succeeded in chipping away at the state’s inheritance tax. The new law, effective January 1, 2023, cuts the top tax rates (from 18% to 15%, for example) and increases the exemption amounts (from $10,000 to $25,000, for example). It also eliminates inheritance taxes for heirs under 22, and it makes unadopted step-relatives taxed at the lower rate for nearer family members and not the higher rate for unrelated heirs. “Lawmakers wouldn’t agree to a general phasedown of the tax at this point that would apply to everyone, but they were willing to accept that if a younger person were to inherit property or cash (and we can use a lot more young residents and entrepreneurs in Nebraska) that it’s not in the state’s economic interest to take any of it away from them,” says Adam Weinberg, communications director with the Platte Institute, which is continuing its effort to repeal the inheritance tax in Nebraska.
Meanwhile, Connecticut, the least taxing of the estate tax states, is on schedule to increase its exemption to $9.1 million in 2022, and then to match the federal exemption for deaths on or after January 1, 2023. In an unusual nod designed to keep the richest taxpayers in the state, Connecticut has a $15 million cap on state estate and gift taxes (which represents the tax due on an estate of approximately $129 million).
Other states with 2022 changes: Washington, D.C., reduced its estate tax exemption amount to $4 million in 2021, but then adjusted that amount for inflation beginning this year, bringing the 2022 exemption amount to $4,254,800. Several states, which all have set their exemption amounts at different base levels, also see inflation adjustments for 2022. Maine’s is $6,010,000, while New York’s is $6,110,000. In Rhode Island, the 2022 exemption amount is $1,648,611.
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