Understanding Illinois estate taxes

Federal estate taxes get all the press.  But don’t forget that Illinois has an estate tax too.

And, to be honest, the Illinois estate tax is one of the most misunderstood things in estate planning.  We frequently get questions about how it works…even from other Illinois estate planning attorneys.

Calculating Federal Estate Taxes

The federal estate tax is pretty straightforward.  You can gift or pass on up to the exemption amount (currently $5.12 million but scheduled to go down to $1 million in 2013) without paying any taxes.  If your estate is larger than the exemption amount, you pay taxes only on the excess.

Calculating federal estate taxes is a simple matter of subtracting the exemption amount ($5.12 million) and multiplying the remainder by the tax rate (currently 35%).

Calculating Illinois Estate Taxes

We prepared an Illinois estate tax chart to highlight how the exclusion works for different estate sizes.  A good picture can often make a point much more clearly than paragraphs of the best explanation.

The blue line shows the estate taxes due (these figures were obtained from the Illinois Attorney General estate tax calculator).  As you can see, no Illinois estate taxes are due until an estate exceeds $3.5 million (the amount of the 2012 Illinois estate tax exclusion).  But once an estate hits that mark, Illinois taxes shoot up like a rocket.  Then, around $4.8 million, the taxes level off.

The red line is a continuation of that part of the blue line above $4.8 million. It is there to show what the taxes would have been in the absence of the exclusion.  The straight line starting at zero and continuing on through the blue line tells us that the taxes at and above $4.8 million is a flat percentage of the entire estate, not just the amount of the estate over $3.5 million.

Illinois Estate Tax Example

Let’s see how that works in practice.  In 2011, the Illinois exclusion amount was $2 million.  In 2012, that amount was raised to $3.5 million.

So that means a person can pass on an additional $1.5 million to their heirs tax free in 2013, right?

Not necessarily!

It’s easiest to see by looking at an example.  We’ll use an estate size of $5 million because that is the amount of the federal exemption from 2011.

  • Illinois Estate taxes owed in 2011 (exclusion $2.0 million):  $352,158
  • Illinois Estate taxes owed in 2012 (exclusion $3.5 million):  $352,158

Yes, you read those numbers correctly!  The taxes owed on a $5 million estate are exactly the same regardless of whether the exclusion amount is $2.0 million or $3.5 million.

The convergence point seems to be around $4.8 million.  Below that amount, an estate will owe less taxes under the 2012 rules than under the 2011 rules.  But for any estates over that amount, the Illinois estate taxes didn’t change with the increase in the exclusion.

What It Means For You

If your estate is between $2 million and $3.5 million (or from $4 to 7 million for a couple with the proper estate planning to take advantage of both spouse’s exclusion amounts), you can rest easy.  The increase in the exclusion amount saved your future heirs lots of money in Illinois estate taxes.

But if your estate is above $4.8 million (or $9.6 million for a couple with the proper estate planning) the increase in the exclusion amount didn’t reduce your estate taxes by even a single penny.

The good news for everyone with an estate over (or even close to) $3.5 million (or $7 million for couples) is that estate tax reducing strategies are available.

The best medicine for treating estate taxes is a good strategy + time to make it work.


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