Question: My wife recently died, and I would like to leave the bulk of my estate to my daughter. The total value of my various assets is about $400,000. My understanding is that there would be an estate tax of about 34 percent. Are there ways to minimize this tax at my death?
Answer: First, let's get the estate-tax figure straightened out.
It is true that an estate of that size would put it into the 34 percent tax bracket. But the estate tax, like the income tax, is graduated -- only the amount in excess of $250,000 is subject to the 34 percent figure; the rest is taxed at a lower rate.
On a net estate of $400,000 (after funeral expenses, certain bequests to charities and various other deductions) the computed tax amounts to $121,800. But then there is a unified tax credit of $47,000 (assuming that the credit had not been exhausted by lifetime gifts).
Subtracting that credit leaves a net tax of $74,800, equal to 18.7 percent of the total estate. This is still a sizable chunk of money but considerably less than the 34 percent you mentioned.
There is also a small additional deduction allowed if your daughter is less than 21 years old at the time of your death.
About the only way you can reduce the amount of the estate tax is to reduce the size of the estate. You can do that by giving away some of the assets while you are still alive.
You may give up to $3,000 each to as many people as you wish without any gift tax consequences and without reducing the $47,000 unified credit. That $3,000 doesn't sound like much against a $400,000 estate, but any reduction comes off the top bracket.
So a simple $3,000 gift to your daughter reduces the total estate tax by $1,020. And you can repeat the gift every year. Gifts made within three years before death normally are included in the estate, but this does not apply to gifts that fall within the $3,000 annual exclusion.
On April 21, in answer to a question on where the tax savings on an IRA show up, I pointed out that they really don't show up in the account at all.
Instead, there is a reduction in your income tax bill which usually shows up simply as a little more money in the pot and seems to get absorbed in everyday living expenses.
In response to that column, along comes Henry E. Johnson, executive VP of Jefferson Federal S&L in the District with a suggestion for taking advantage of the the tax savings to compound the benefits of the IRA. It'll work for Keogh, too.
He suggests you figure the actual tax savings by multiplying your marginal tax bracket by the amount of your IRA contributions for the year (plus the tax-deferred income on your earlier deposits, if you want to go all the way).
Instead of letting that tax savings get swallowed up, he recommends you plow that money into another investment account, to accumulate in tandem with the IRA itself.
As Johnson says, there is no tax advantage available for this second account: It is built with after-tax dollars, and the earnings will be subject to tax.
But it prevents the tax advantage associated with the IRA from simply disappearing. And at retirement time the two accounts together -- the IRA and the separate fund built from IRA tax savings -- will provide substantially greater income than the IRA alone.
Reminder for students on summer jobs: You are not required to have income tax withheld from your wages if you do not expect to earn enough to owe any tax for the year.
If you had no income tax liablity in 1980 and expect to have none for 1981, you can request that your employer not withhold tax.
You do this by filing with your employer a Form W-4 (Employee's Withholding Allowance Certificate) on which you claim exemption from tax withholding by writing the word "Exempt" on line 3.
This won't get you off the hook for Social Security tax. But it will get you a little more cash now and also save you the trouble of filing a tax return next spring to get the tax money refunded to you.