Understanding Estate Tax in California: Your Guide to Effective Planning and Tax Savings

As you navigate the complexities of estate planning in California, understanding the intersection of estate laws and tax regulations is crucial. As a seasoned estate planning and tax attorney, my goal is to guide you through the essential elements of California’s estate laws. This knowledge will empower you to make informed decisions, optimize your estate planning, and potentially save on federal and state taxes and fees when transferring assets.

Why You Need an Estate Plan

An estate plan is more than just a legal requirement; it’s a strategic tool for ensuring your assets are managed and distributed according to your wishes. Without a proper estate plan, your estate may be subjected to lengthy probate procedures, increased legal fees, and unnecessary tax burdens. In California, where real estate values are significant, the stakes are even higher.

Key Components of a California Estate Plan

  1. Will and Trusts: Essential for dictating your asset distribution wishes, minimizing probate involvement, and potentially reducing estate taxes.
  2. Power of Attorney: Enables a trusted person to manage your legal and financial affairs if you’re unable to do so.
  3. Advanced Healthcare Directive: Ensures that your healthcare preferences are followed in situations where you cannot make decisions yourself.

Tax Implications in Estate Planning

Before we begin, it’s important to define the different types of taxes handled in estate planning, demystifying the common misconceptions around “inheritance tax,” “estate tax,” and “gift tax.”

  • Inheritance Tax: California does not have an inheritance tax. An inheritance tax, where it exists, is a tax paid by the beneficiary who receives property from a deceased person’s estate. Since California lacks this tax, beneficiaries do not need to pay state tax on the value of property they inherit. However, they may still be subject to federal taxes depending on their circumstances.
  • Estate Tax: Unlike inheritance tax, estate tax is levied on the estate itself before the assets are distributed to the heirs. Fortunately, there is no California estate tax; however, estates may be subject to federal estate taxes if their value exceeds the federal exemption limit (currently $12.92 million in 2024, but scheduled to decrease in 2026).
  • Gift Tax: The gift tax applies to transfers made during a person’s lifetime. California follows federal gift tax rules, where individuals can gift up to $17,000 per recipient per year (as of 2024) without incurring any gift tax. Larger gifts must be reported, and they count against the lifetime estate and gift tax exemption.

The interplay between estate planning and tax considerations in California is intricate. Here’s how they intertwine:

  • Federal Estate Tax: While there is no California estate tax, estates exceeding certain federal thresholds are subject to federal estate taxes. Strategic planning can help minimize this liability. Read more on this below.
  • Gift Tax Strategies: Regular gifting can reduce the size of your estate, potentially lowering your estate tax burden while benefiting your heirs during your lifetime. Learn more: Gifting to Reduce Estate Taxes
  • Capital Gains and Step-Up Basis: Understanding how capital gains are treated and leveraging the step-up in basis can significantly reduce tax liabilities for your heirs. More on this below.

Understanding Federal Estate Tax and Their Impact on Californians

While California does not impose an estate tax, the federal estate tax can significantly affect how large estates are handled upon an individual’s death. Here’s what you need to know:

  1. Federal Estate Tax Threshold and Future Changes: For 2024, the federal estate tax exemption is set at $12.92 million per individual, meaning that estates valued below this amount are exempt from federal estate taxes. However, this exemption is scheduled to decrease significantly at the end of 2025. Unless new legislation is enacted to extend or modify the exemption, it will revert to $5 million per individual, adjusted for inflation (estimated to be around $6.8 million). This change will potentially subject many more estates to federal estate taxes, especially given the high value of assets and real estate in California.
  2. Portability Between Spouses: The federal estate tax exemption is portable between married couples, effectively allowing a surviving spouse to use any unused portion of their deceased spouse’s exemption. This means a married couple can protect a combined estate worth up to approximately $25.84 million from federal estate taxes, assuming no prior taxable gifts.
  3. Impact on California Residents: For Californians, especially those owning high-value real estate and other significant assets, it’s crucial to plan for the possibility of federal estate taxes. Given the high property values in the state, even moderately affluent families can find themselves impacted.
  4. Planning Strategies: To mitigate potential federal estate tax liabilities, Californians should consider several strategies:
    • Lifetime Gifting: Utilizing the annual gift tax exclusion and lifetime gift tax exemption can reduce the size of an estate and thereby minimize estate taxes. For 2024, the annual gift tax exclusion is $17,000 per recipient.
    • Trusts: Various types of trusts, including irrevocable life insurance trusts and bypass trusts, can be used to exclude assets from one’s estate, helping to lower potential estate tax liability.
    • Charitable Donations: Leaving a portion of the estate to charity can not only fulfill philanthropic goals but also reduce the size of the estate subject to taxation.
  5. Need for Professional Guidance: Given the complexities of federal estate tax laws and the potential for significant tax consequences, working with an experienced estate planning attorney and tax specialist is crucial. They can help develop a strategy that minimizes your tax liabilities while ensuring that your estate planning goals are met.

Understanding Capital Gains Tax in Estate Planning

Here’s what you need to know about capital gains tax, which can significantly affect financial outcomes when inherited property is sold:

  • Basis in Inherited Property: One of the most important aspects of inheriting property is understanding the concept of “step-up in basis.” Normally, capital gains tax is calculated based on the difference between the selling price and the original purchase price of an asset. However, when property is inherited, the tax basis is generally “stepped up” to the market value at the date of the previous owner’s death. This means if the heirs sell the property soon after inheriting it, they might owe little to no capital gains tax, depending on the sale price relative to this new stepped-up basis.
  • Example Scenario: Consider a home purchased in 1980 for $100,000, which has a market value of $1 million at the time of the owner’s death in 2024. If the heirs sell the home shortly after inheriting it for its market value, their basis for calculating capital gains tax would be the stepped-up value of $1 million. Therefore, if sold at $1 million, there would be no capital gains tax due because there is no gain beyond the stepped-up basis.
  • Long-Term Holding Considerations: If the heirs decide to hold onto the property and it appreciates further, any sale later would only incur capital gains tax on the increase in value after the date of inheritance. It’s crucial for heirs to consider how long they plan to keep an inherited property and to evaluate the potential tax implications of selling it in the future.
  • Exemptions and Exclusions: It’s also important to note that the federal tax code offers an exclusion of up to $250,000 ($500,000 for married couples) on capital gains from the sale of a primary residence, provided certain conditions are met, such as owning and using the property as the primary residence for at least two out of the five years prior to its sale.

Understanding California Inheritance Tax

California does not levy an inheritance tax, which is a tax imposed on individuals receiving an inheritance. However, this does not eliminate the need for strategic estate planning, as other taxes and legal intricacies can still impact the overall distribution and value of your estate.

Key Points:

  • No State Inheritance Tax: Beneficiaries are not taxed on the value of their inheritance under California law, differentiating it from states that impose inheritance taxes.
  • Community Property Considerations: In California, understanding how community property is treated at death is crucial. Assets acquired during marriage are considered community property and are generally passed on to the surviving spouse without tax implications.
  • Probate and Estate Planning: Despite the lack of a state inheritance tax, California estates may still undergo probate, which can be avoided or simplified through proper estate planning techniques like trusts and proper asset titling. Probate can be costly and time-consuming. However, with proper estate planning, including the establishment of trusts and correctly titling your assets, you can avoid probate and ensure a smoother transition of your estate to your heirs.

Understanding these distinctions is crucial for proper estate planning and avoiding unnecessary worries about taxes that do not apply. It’s recommended to consult with an estate planning attorney to navigate these complexities and ensure that your estate plan adheres to both state and federal laws.

California Property Tax Laws and Inheritance

While heirs can seek comfort in no inheritance tax, California property taxes can significantly impact what your heirs may inherit, primarily due to how property values are reassessed at the time of transfer. Here’s a detailed look into this topic to help clarify how these taxes could affect inherited property:

  1. Proposition 13: Enacted in 1978, this law caps the annual increase in property tax based on assessed value at no more than 2% per year as long as the property is not sold or newly constructed. The property’s tax base is the purchase price, and this low rate continues until the property is transferred.
  2. Reassessment Upon Transfer: When property is transferred due to sale, gift, or inheritance, it is typically reassessed at its current market value, which can lead to a significant increase in property taxes. However, there are important exceptions for transfers between parents and children (and in some cases, grandparents to grandchildren), where the property may not be fully reassessed.
  3. Parent-Child and Grandparent-Grandchild Exclusion: California allows for a reassessment exclusion when real estate is transferred between parents and children, and under certain conditions, from grandparents to grandchildren. This exclusion applies to a principal residence, regardless of value, and up to $1 million of assessed value of other real estate. This means the property taxes could potentially remain at a lower rate, making it more affordable for heirs to keep the property.
  4. Proposition 19: Passed in 2020, this amendment to California’s tax code offers significant changes particularly affecting inherited properties. It allows homeowners who are 55 or older, disabled, or victims of natural disasters to transfer their property tax assessments to a new home of equal or lesser value, potentially across county lines, up to three times. Critically for estate planning, it also changes the rules for passing on lower property tax rates on residential properties to heirs. The new rules allow the transfer of the family home to children or grandchildren without reassessment only if they use it as their primary residence, and the tax benefit caps at $1 million of the home’s assessed value over the original tax base.

Strategies to Minimize Property Tax Impact

  1. Planning for Transfer Exclusions: If you plan to leave property to your children or grandchildren, understanding how to structure your estate to qualify for these exclusions is crucial. Proper documentation and adherence to legal requirements are necessary to ensure the exclusion is applied.
  2. Use of Legal Entities: Sometimes, holding property within a trust or other legal entity can be beneficial. However, the rules regarding reassessment can become complex when entities are involved, so careful planning with an estate planning attorney is essential.
  3. Lifetime Transfers: In some cases, it may be advantageous to transfer property during your lifetime to lock in low property taxes and ensure smooth succession of property ownership. This needs to be balanced with potential gift tax implications and loss of control over the property.

Understanding Proposition 19: A California Estate Planning Scenario

Scenario: The Johnson Family Property Transfer

Background: The Johnson family owns a cherished family home in San Francisco, valued at $2.5 million. The home was purchased 30 years ago for $500,000. Mr. and Mrs. Johnson are considering transferring their home to their only daughter, Emily, but are concerned about the potential increase in property taxes due to current market values.

Key Points:

  1. Transfer of Principal Residence: Under Proposition 19, parents can transfer their principal residence to their children (or grandchildren, under certain conditions) without a full reassessment, provided the property continues as the primary residence of the transferee. The first $1 million of the current assessed value (not market value) over the original tax base is excluded from reassessment.
  2. Impact on the Johnsons: The current assessed value of the Johnsons’ home, due to Prop 13, is approximately $700,000, despite the market value being $2.5 million. If they transfer the home to Emily, and she makes it her principal residence, the reassessment exclusion applies. However, any value above $1.7 million ($700,000 original base + $1 million exclusion) would be reassessed.

Outcome: If Emily inherits the home and it is reassessed at $2.5 million, the first $1.7 million retains the original assessed value, and only the remaining $800,000 is reassessed at current market rates. This scenario keeps the property tax increase much lower than if the entire property were reassessed at market value.

Strategic Considerations:

  • Residence Requirement: Emily must use the property as her principal residence within one year of transfer to qualify for the tax relief.
  • Legal and Tax Advice: The Johnsons and Emily should consult with an estate planning attorney to ensure all conditions are met and to explore whether additional estate planning tools, such as trusts, might be beneficial.

Frequently Asked Questions

How much money or cash can I inherit without paying taxes in California?

In California, there is no state inheritance tax, so you can inherit any amount of money or cash without owing state taxes on it. However, the federal estate tax may apply if the inherited amount exceeds the federal exemption amount. In 2024, this amount is $12.92 million.

How much are estate taxes in California?

California does not levy a state estate tax. The only estate taxes that residents might need to consider are federal taxes, which apply based on the value of the deceased’s entire estate.

When did California abolish the estate tax?

California abolished its state estate tax in 2005 as a result of changes in federal law that phased out the state death tax credit. Prior to 2005, California had a “pick-up” estate tax, which was essentially a credit on the federal estate tax, allowing states to capture some of the federal tax revenue without increasing the overall tax burden on the estate. When federal law changed to eliminate this credit, California’s corresponding estate tax effectively disappeared. Since then, California has not reimposed any form of a state-level estate tax.

When did California stop inheritance tax?

California repealed its state inheritance tax in 1982. This change came about after the passage of a ballot initiative that effectively eliminated the state’s ability to levy inheritance taxes. Since then, California residents have not been subject to any state-level inheritance taxes, though they still must consider federal estate taxes if the total value of the deceased’s estate exceeds the federal exemption threshold.

May 3, 2024

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