In Pennsylvania, inheritance tax basically is a tax on your right to receive property of someone who has died. The tax rate is based on which class of beneficiary that you are in. For example, the spousal rate currently is zero percent while transfers to brothers and sisters face a tax rate of 12 percent. Because inheritance tax is assessed on a “transferee” having the right to receive property and the amount of the tax is calculated based on this person’s relationship to the decedent, an argument could be made that transferees, who are the individuals receiving the property, should be taxed. This also is reality, although they usually do not file returns or pay the tax directly to Pennsylvania.
According to Pennsylvania law, the estate’s personal representative (who also is called the administrator or the executor) must file the inheritance tax return that would include property of the decedent over which he or she had control, as well as any other property of which the personal representative has knowledge and that will be subject to inheritance tax when it is transferred. Simply put, the personal representative has the primary responsibility to file the return.
However, complications do arise. If the personal representative does not file an inheritance tax return or does not include property that you received as a transferee, then you are responsible for filing a return regarding that property and also for paying the inheritance tax. Remember that, ultimately, inheritance tax is based on a person’s right to receive estate property, and rights come with obligations. You have the responsibility to pay the inheritance tax on this property when the personal representative fails to do so. For example, a personal representative could exclude a beneficiary in the inheritance tax return when the property was owned jointly with the right of survivorship by the decedent and someone other than a spouse. The personal representative can fill in a circle on the return which states that the survivor, who automatically becomes owner of the entire amount, is to be billed separately by Pennsylvania’s Department of Revenue. The survivor needs to file a return and pay the inheritance tax on the portion that had been owned by the decedent.
The usual situation will involve the personal representative writing the check for the amount of inheritance tax owed, though. While the inheritance tax statute places the “ultimate liability” for payment on the transferee who receives the property, Section 9144 (entitled “Source of payment”) of Pennsylvania’s Fiscal Code, also specifies that the inheritance tax generally is to be paid by the personal representative from the residuary estate (which is what remains after all debts, expenses, claims, and testamentary gifts have been paid out).
If the personal representative does not pay the inheritance tax, then anyone receiving the residuary estate is supposed to pay it. Ultimately, if none of these individuals makes the payment, anyone who received property from the estate will be liable for paying the inheritance tax on the value of what she or he received. This is why you are said to have “ultimate liability” regarding anything that was transferred from the estate to you.
Because the possibility of receiving property from an estate often seems to bring out the worst in people, you might want to consider eliminating as many potential controversies involving the estate that you eventually will leave. An estate plan can be used to make clear how any inheritance tax on your estate is to be paid. This is why a Last Will and Testament commonly includes a clause directing how the inheritance tax, as well as other costs that can typically arise when a person is dying and other common costs after death, are to be handled by the individual who will be in charge of the estate. Setting forth your clear intent regarding payment of inheritance tax ensures that one possible estate controversy is eliminated. At the very least, this shows how good estate planning can prevent a hard time from becoming even harder for your family and friends.