inheritance tax, assessment made on the portion of an estate received by an individual; it differs from an estate tax, which is a tax levied on an entire estate before it is distributed to individuals. The inheritance tax is usually progressive and is determined by the amount of property received by the beneficiary, as well as by his or her relationship to the deceased. Strictly speaking, it is a tax on the right to receive the property; the estate tax can be characterized as a tax on the right to transmit the property. All states impose either an estate tax or an inheritance tax, some states employing both. A related federal levy is the gift tax, designed to prevent people from avoiding inheritance and estate taxes by giving away property before death.
In the United States, the federal government levied inheritance taxes during the Civil War period and again during the Spanish-American War; since 1916, however, a progressive estate tax has been imposed. The U.S. tax law of 1981 greatly reduced estate and gift taxes by raising exemptions (from $175,000 to $600,000) and lowering rates, and a 2001 law calls phase out the federal estate tax by 2012; estate taxes in 40 states that are based on the federal tax credit for state estate taxes would be phased out in 2006.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.