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Married Couples can Use Estate Tax Exemptions in Estate Planning

July 28, 2023
Andrew Sigerson
A primary goal of most married couples when contemplating basic estate planning documents is to ensure that the surviving spouse, and commonly, the couple's children and grandchildren, are supported financially.

Estate tax avoidance and mitigation are central considerations for financial security for surviving spouses. According to a recent article from The National Law Review, “Basic Estate Tax Planning for Married Couples: Opportunities For Use Of Estate Tax Exemptions,” the first spouse may leave property of unlimited value to the surviving spouse without incurring any estate tax upon the death of the first spouse. This unlimited marital deduction shields assets from estate taxes and helps support the surviving spouse. Assets can be distributed directly to the surviving spouse or through an indirect transfer to a qualifying trust for the surviving spouse’s benefit.

Most couples use trusts for asset protection, most commonly for the preservation of assets for children from a prior marriage and asset management help for the surviving spouse. The marital deduction is a valuable estate tax avoidance tool for married couples.

However, estate tax law is not generous for non-spouse beneficiaries. Legislation passed in 2013 allowed individuals to leave assets totaling $5 million in value (indexed to inflation since 2011) to non-spouse, non-charitable beneficiaries and then doubled this amount following the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act to $10 million. However, if additional legislation is not passed before the sunset date of January 1, 2026, this amount will be cut in half.

In 2013, Congress made the portability of a spouse’s estate tax exemption permanent. This allows the surviving spouse to capture and use the first decedent spouse’s remaining estate tax exemption and the surviving spouse’s own exemption. To capture this estate tax exemption, an estate tax return must be filed in a timely manner after the death of the first spouse.

If spouses have a total estate exceeding available exemptions, they may use what is known as the “Credit Shelter Trust Planning” or “Optimal Marital Deduction Planning.” A trust is established, funded with assets of the first spouse to die, to use the spouse’s estate tax exemption. Assets in the trust are available to the surviving spouse for life but are not included in the survivor’s taxable estate upon their death. The goal benefits the surviving spouse and reduces any estate tax to maximize benefits for the children and grandchildren.

Another frequently used tool is the “disclaimer” plan, which allows the survivor to move certain assets into a trust for the survivor’s benefit rather than receiving assets directly. For married couples with estates valued at less than their available estate tax exemptions, a disclaimer plan provides the “all to spouse” plan and the option to implement a tax-advantaged trust. All assets are left to the survivor; then, based on the value of the first spouse’s estate, the surviving spouse may choose to disclaim the first spouse’s assets and divert them to a tax-advantaged trust.

It must be noted that there is no “one-size-fits-all” plan for married couples who wish to care for their surviving spouse, children, and grandchildren. It’s important to understand the basic estate tax avoidance or mitigation tools to create an estate plan to consider the couple’s planning goals and values. An experienced estate planning attorney can create a comprehensive estate plan to suit each family’s needs.

Reference: The National Law Review (June 24, 2023) “Basic Estate Tax Planning for Married Couples: Opportunities For Use Of Estate Tax Exemptions”

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