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Federal Estate Tax “Portability” – Should It Always Be Used?

The idea of “portability” is an important part of many estate plans. Portability is technically an informal word referring to a federal tax-saving option using the deceased spouse’s unused exemption (DSUE). Essentially, portability is a tool for married couples that, when used prudently, can shave millions of dollars off an estate tax bill.

Under the current law, assets under $5.34 million are exempt from the federal estate tax (though the New York tax kicks in far lower at $1 million). Importantly, there are unlimited tax-free transfers allowed between spouses. That means that if one spouse dies and leaves everything to the other, then there will not be a federal estate tax burden, regardless of how many assets are passed on.

However, when the surviving spouse passes away and transfers those assets to others–perhaps adult children–then the tax would apply to assets over the individual exemption level of $5.34 million. But portability changes that. Instead of using only an individual exemption, a surviving couple may be able to use any unused exemption from their former spouse in addition to their own. This means that up to $10.68 million may be exempt from the tax. In short, portability can save an estate millions of dollars in taxes.

Importantly, portability must be “elected,” meaning that failing to file the appropriate paperwork upon the first spouse’s death may result in the extra exemption being lost.

Should You Always Take Advantage of Portability?
Considering the benefit of portability, it is critical to determine how it may fit into your plan. One potential downside, as discussed in a recent Wealth Strategies Journal article, is that there may be a mistaken reliance on portability. Because of the advantages couples may believe that it always makes sense to simply leave everything to a spouse and then taking more sophisticated planning steps for the second spouse.

Also, the majority of families will not have estate nearing the level where the tax may come into play, and so serious thought needs to be given regarding whether the election is even worth it in their case. In addition, there is a New York estate tax which may require use of other shelter trusts, even when portability would solve the problem at the federal level. Re-marriage may also add complexity, as the rules regarding portability with multiple spouses can be confusing, depending on how much of an exemption was used by a former spouse.

For help on these very complex legal issues, seek out an experienced estate planning attorney as soon as feasible.

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