The Estate Tax Exemption: Navigating Current Regulations and Policy Debates in Missouri and Nationwide

The estate tax exemption, often dubbed the "lifetime exclusion," plays a critical role in estate planning. It's vital for residents of Missouri and beyond to understand the current rules and the policy debates surrounding this contentious issue.

1. Understanding the Estate Tax Exemption

Estate tax, colloquially referred to as the "death tax," is a federal tax on the transfer of a person's assets upon their death. The estate tax exemption, adjusted annually for inflation, allows a certain amount of an estate to be passed on to heirs tax-free. As of 2021, the federal estate tax exemption is $11.7 million for individuals and $23.4 million for married couples. It's crucial to note that Missouri does not levy its own estate tax, meaning residents only need to consider the federal exemption.

2. Policy Behind the Estate Tax Exemption

The estate tax and its exemption emerged from the desire to prevent the excessive accumulation of wealth in a few families, aiming to ensure a more equitable distribution of resources. The exemption limit serves a dual purpose: first, it shields small to medium-sized estates, which often consist of family homes, small businesses, and retirement assets, from being depleted by taxes. Second, it guarantees that larger estates, which often consist of significant liquid assets, pay their "fair share" back into the system.

3. Debate Surrounding the Estate Tax Exemption

The estate tax exemption is not without controversy. Advocates argue that it prevents the undue burden on the transfer of wealth, particularly for family businesses and farms. By exempting a portion of the estate, the tax does not force the sale of assets to cover the tax bill. Furthermore, it encourages charitable giving, as donations to qualified charities are deductible from the taxable estate.

Critics, however, argue that the estate tax exemption, particularly at its current level, benefits only the wealthiest fraction of society. They suggest that it exacerbates wealth inequality and represents a significant loss of potential tax revenue. Some critics propose lowering the exemption limit, while others advocate for the repeal of the estate tax itself.

4. Future of the Estate Tax Exemption

As of 2021, the exemption limit is set to revert to $5 million (adjusted for inflation) in 2026, as established by the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017. However, this is subject to change, as Congress can alter tax laws at any time.


The estate tax exemption is a critical factor in estate planning, with far-reaching implications for wealth transfer and societal equity. Whether you agree with the current policy or are advocating for change, understanding the estate tax exemption is key for effective estate planning.