Can the death tax cost you a fortune?

Despite what you may have heard, the death tax is not meant to break the bank.
Despite what you may have heard, the death tax is not meant to break the bank.

Many taxpayers are concerned about the so-called death tax. Congressional debate in late 2010 over taxes on wealth transfers, and the media messages presented by groups opposing the taxes and using the term "death tax," brought this subject to the attention of American taxpayers. If some of the stories are to be believed, misuse of this law and honest mistakes by taxpayers can easily wipe out the estate left behind when a family member dies [source: Policy and Taxation Group].

But can inheritance and estate taxes -- often referred to as death taxes -- actually wipe out a person's estate? The question bears consideration as many Americans plan for their families' futures.

In short, the answer is "not necessarily." Estate taxes, if your estate qualifies for them, can take a significant portion of the overall value. And the confusing nature of this tax, along with the stress of settling it soon after the loss of a family member, can set the stage for costly filing mistakes. But information is available to reduce the chance of your entire material legacy being taken by the government when you die [source: IRS].

The process of evaluating and taxing an estate can be confusing for someone not accustomed to working with tax documentation and procedures. The IRS has a number of free documents available on its Web site, and exploring these is one of the best ways to familiarize yourself with the basics of estate tax filing [source: IRS]. Since estate tax laws changed in late 2010, it's wise to read as much as you can about the laws and how they may or may not affect your estate. Any competent tax attorney or accountant should be familiar with these changes and can assist you with understanding their key features [source: Herpe].

Next, let's learn a little more about estate tax planning.