Reforms being debated by Congress could repeal the federal estate tax with certain modifications. But state estate taxes might still siphon off hundreds of thousands of dollars regardless of what happens under federal law.
What are your options if you reside in a state with a high estate tax? You might shift assets out of your estate during your lifetime, possibly through direct gifts or transfers to trusts. Or you could move to a state with a lower state estate tax, or no tax at all.
Giving lifetime gifts may be the easiest move. For instance, if you transfer property to your children, the assets are removed from your estate. Of course, you also give up control of the assets.
A bypass trust is a tried-and-true method for transferring assets. Typically, you arrange for a surviving spouse to receive income from the trust, with the remainder going to your children. Thus, the assets “bypass” the estate of the surviving spouse and can benefit from the estate tax exemption. This will remain a viable strategy for state estate tax purposes if the federal estate tax is repealed. (Be aware that, unlike federal law, there’s no portability of exemptions for state taxes.)
Picking up stakes and moving to another state is drastic, but might be your best bet. Currently, 14 states and the District of Columbia have a state estate tax on the books, while six states have inheritance taxes based on the relationship of beneficiaries. Maryland and New Jersey have both. But New Jersey recently approved legislation that increases its low estate tax exemption for 2017 and then repeals the estate tax completely in 2018.