Locking in a Deceased Spouse’s Unused Federal Estate Tax Exemption

Preserving a deceased spouse’s unused federal estate tax exemption may protect the survivor’s estate from huge taxes if the exemption lowers.

Coping with the death of a spouse is one of life’s biggest challenges.  In addition to the emotional toll, there are many small details that need to be addressed with accounts, finances, taxes and other matters.  One thing that should be considered is locking in the deceased spouse’s unused federal estate tax exemption, says a recent article from Forbes titled “4 Things You Should Know About The Death Tax Exemption.”

The deceased spouse unused exemption (DSUE) is the amount of federal estate tax exemption the spouse’s estate did not use when they passed away. When a person dies, a federal estate tax, known also as the “death” tax, is imposed on any assets over a certain amount. The estate tax exemption amount covers the assets that fall below that amount.  If you properly elect to us it, the DSUE amount can be used by the surviving spouse in their own estate along with their own personal tax exemption.  If you want a longer primer on the estate tax for reading this article, see here:  https://www.galliganmanning.com/what-exactly-is-the-estate-tax/

The threshold has changed over the years. It is at a historically high level of $11,580,000 in 2020 and is indexed to inflation, so it goes up slightly each year.  However, the current law will sunset in 2026, when it will drop to $5 million (adjusted for inflation), and as the federal government needs to pay for COVID-related costs, it is likely to drop sooner and possibly lower.

The DSUE is locked in when you file your deceased spouses’ estate tax return timely.  It is due nine (9) months after the date of death, but may be extended in some cases for up to two (2) years after death. If a spouse died in 2020 with the current exemption of $11,580,000 in place and used up $6,580,000 of the exemption amount, the surviving spouse will be able to add $5,000,000 to their exemption amount by filing the estate tax return appropriately.

The surviving spouse would then have their own $11,580,000 exemption (or whatever is appropriate in the year they pass), plus the $5,000,000 from the deceased spouse’s exemptions. As the current tax rate is 40% for amounts over the exemption, this is an exceptional tax benefit for high networth families, especially if the tax exemption plummets in future years.

I’ve said this a few times but it bears repeating: even if a spouse leaves all of their assets to their spouse and no federal estate taxes are due, an estate tax return still needs to be filed, if the surviving spouse is to lock in the DSUE. If the surviving spouse does not file an estate tax return in a timely fashion, the DSUE will be lost. The estate tax savings to the heirs could be in the millions.

If the estate tax exemption drops to prior levels, such as $3,500,000 which has been proposed in recent years, the family will still be able to claim the DSUE when the second spouse dies. This could be a big help for heirs in reducing or eliminating taxes on the second spouse’s estate. Many people may not have an estate worth $11 million, but by adding up the value of a home, retirement accounts, life insurance and other assets, a $5 million level of assets is not unheard of, and may be over the future exemption amount.

Your estate planning attorney will be able to analyze the federal estate taxes to achieve the best possible outcome for you and your spouse.

Reference: Forbes (Aug. 17, 2020) “4 Things You Should Know About The Death Tax Exemption”

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