The federal estate tax (sometimes called the death tax) is a one-time tax that is imposed at death. If you die with a certain dollar amount of assets – currently, estates under $11.4 million are exempt, but this reverts back to $5 million in 2026 – a federal estate tax return is required and a tax will be due. If a return is required, it is due nine months after the date of death.
Sometimes people confuse the estate tax with an income tax, but it is not a tax on income. It is a transfer tax imposed on the wealthy at death. If you die with a gross estate under $11.4 million in 2019, no estate tax is due. If your gross estate is over $11.4 million, you pay a tax on the overage. In general, the tax rate is between 18% and 40%, but it gets to 40% pretty quickly.