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Rows of 100 dollar bills

There’s that pragmatic, and slightly depressing saying that the only sure things in life are death and taxes. But what about taxes on death? Just like you can’t escape taxes in life, they government can tax your estate at death. Indeed, it’s often referred to as the “death tax.”  And, just like taxpayers file both federal and state income taxes, there are both federal and state estate taxes.

People having a meeting at a desk with papers

What is an Estate Tax?

When a U.S. resident dies, an estate tax may be levied against the gross estate, which includes the fair market value (FMV) of all owned property, as well as any assets the deceased had interest in (e.g. assets like life insurance). Think of it like the gross income figure you calculate for income tax returns.

Federal Estate Tax

Let’s start with federal estate taxes. Because this is a federal tax, this applies regardless of what state you die in.

Not too long ago, I reviewed the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act’s (TCJA) impact on estate planning. (Why? Because smart estate planning accounts for taxes and employs strategies that minimize said taxes.) One of the most significant changes from the “new tax law” was with the estate tax exemption. This is the figure subtracted from an estate’s gross value in order to calculate federal taxes.

For tax years 2018 through 2025, the exemption from estate, gift, and generation-skipping taxes was raised from $5.49 million per individual to an approximated $11.2 million. (Why do I say approximated? Because the exemption base is indexed, so the base for the 2017 tax year was $5 million; for the 2018 tax year, the base is now $10 million and indexed for inflation.) In plain terms, this means each individual should be able to pass over $11 million to their heirs before any estate, gift, and generation-skipping taxes apply.

If you’re married, this means your estate exemption now equals $22.4 million. (Or, you could think of it like each couple now has an additional $11.2 million in assets available to gift or make a testamentary transfer with thoughtful estate planning.)

The bottom line: if your estate is worth less than the federal exemption rates, it will be free from the estate taxes after you die. If you have an estate valued at more than the exemption threshold (and smart estate planning strategies are not appropriately implemented to shield assets from being counted in your estate’s gross value), your taxable estate will met with a tax rate of up to 40 percent.

State Estate Taxes

The caveat (and good news for residents of the majority of states) is that not all states have a state estate tax…including Iowa! Currently, 12 states and D.C. also impose an estate tax on residents. It’s important to note that the exemption rates for these state estate taxes are much lower than the federal exemption rate. For instance, our neighbors to the east in Illinois have an exemption rate of $4 million and a graduated marginal tax rate of of o.8 to 16 percent.

Here’s an incredibly helpful map from Tax Foundation that illustrates this.

estate tax map

Note: figures may have changed since time of publication of this map.

Is there any reason an Iowan would need to account for state estate taxes in their estate planning? Only if they own real estate in another state. Let’s consider a hypothetical example to explain this better.

Alice with her Minnesota Lake House

Alice is an Iowa resident. She died in March 2018 owning a vacation home on her favorite lake in Minnesota. Alice’s gross estate totals $2.8 million. What estate taxes will Alice’s estate be responsible for?

Iowa’s Inheritance Tax

While Iowans largely escape the state estate tax, there is a state inheritance tax. The inheritance tax is different than the estate tax (although they they are often incorrectly used interchangeably). The estate tax is based purely on gross value and regardless of who inherits what; the inheritance tax is only charged against the share of inheritance of certain estate beneficiaries.

There’s a lot to note about Iowa’s inheritance tax, so I’ll do a deep dive into that here on the GoFisch blog later this week!

Questions about how taxes (and other fees) may affect your estate plan? Need to revise your current plan after changes to the tax code? Don’t hesitate to contact me via email at gordon@gordonfischerlawfirm.com or by phone (515-371-6077).

529 plan charitable giving

Family of all shapes and sizes plays a special role for most during the holidays. This brings to mind a different type of gift you can give to a loved one who is currently or planning on attending college. For the majority of the 25 Days of Giving series we’ve focused on charitable gifts made to nonprofit organizations. But, investing in a student’s future and helping to make higher education more affordable and accessible is certainly a valid cause…and has tax benefits of its own.

The 411 on the 529

Gordon Fischer Law Firm is dedicated to Iowans, so we’ll focus on the College Savings Iowa 529 plan, but know that all 50 states and D.C. sponsor at least one type of 529 plan. There are two types of 529 plans—prepaid tuition plans and college savings plans. The College Savings Iowa plan is a tax-advantaged program sponsored and administered by the Treasurer of the State of Iowa. The purpose? Just as the name “college savings” says, it is intended to “help an individual or a family pay for higher-education costs.”

girl in graduation robes

The account funds can be used by the beneficiary for any purpose, but for the withdrawals to be considered tax-free, the money must be used for qualified higher-education expenses at an eligible educational institution by the student. Eligible expenses include elements associated with higher education such as: tuition, mandatory fees, books, required supplies, computers (including related hardware and software), internet access, equipment required for enrollment/attendance, and even  room and board during any academic period where the student is enrolled at least half-time.

If withdrawals are made and not used for for a qualified expense, the deductions must be added back to Iowa taxable income and adjusted annually for inflation. Additionally, the earnings part of the non-qualified withdrawal may be subject to a 10 percent federal penalty tax on top of federal income tax. A great alternative to non-qualified withdrawals if the student doesn’t end up going to or paying for school, is transferring the money to another eligible beneficiary’s 529 account.

Who Can be a 529 Plan Beneficiary?

Your school years may be far behind you, but you can set up a 529 for any beneficiary. The only requirements are that the prospective or current student must be a U.S. citizen or resident alien with a valid Social Security number or other taxpayer ID number. The student doesn’t have to reside in Iowa or be related to you in any way. So, you could set-up a 529 for your niece, but also your friend’s son whom you’ve known since he was little…even if he lives in another state!

woman opening gift on couch

Federal, State, & Estate Tax Benefits

The most obvious benefit of College Savings Iowa 529 accounts is that contributed assets grow deferred from federal and state income taxes. Plus, “Iowa taxpayers can deduct up to $3,239 in contributions per beneficiary (student) account from adjusted gross income for 2017.” These contributions can usually be made up through the tax-filing deadline. (For example, you could make a tax deductible contribution for the 2017 tax year up until the end of April 2018.)

Beyond the $3,239 state tax deduction, you can contribute up to $70,000 in a single tax year for each beneficiary (or $140,000 as a married couple filing jointly) without incurring federal gift tax. This is provided you don’t make any other gifts to that student beneficiary over the course of five years. For the purpose of the contribution, it’s as if you made the $70,000 gift over the course of five years. Any additional gifts made to the beneficiary during that five-year period will incur a gift tax.

There’s another major benefit when it comes to the 529 and estate taxes. Money contributed to a 529 account is generally treated as a “completed gift” to the student beneficiary, but as the contributor/participant, you still have control over the money. If you were to die with money remaining in your account, it will not be included in your estate for federal estate tax purposes. In short, the 529 is a valid tool if your goal is to reduce the total of your estate to avoid the estate tax, but still help a student you care about.

In terms of estate tax, if you took option for the $70,000 contribution ($140,000 for married couples) to a 529 plan account as if it was made over five years and then you die within the five year window, a prorated portion of the contribution will be subject to estate tax. This can get a bit confusing so please speak with your trusted estate planning attorney or tax advisor for more personalized information.

What’s your experience with 529 plans? Any questions in regards to how contributing to a 529 plan could impact your tax savings? Don’t hesitate to contact me by email (gordon@gordonfischerlawfirm.com) or phone (515-371-6077).