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... an estate we're figuring was about $4 million. ... his estate will be owing $2 million?! (first 2 million is exempt from federal tax, then, what, almost 1/2 to the gov't ...)

I think you overestimate the taxes. You've got the right rates and figures, but aren't applying them correctly.

The first 2 million is exempt from Federal estate taxes. But it's the only the amount over that that gets taxed. So you're looking at about $1 million in federal estate taxes, not $2 million. Plus your state taxes, if any.

is the person paying millions in estate taxes the norm or exception?

The exception. Most people die with estates well under the current $2 million threshold for paying estate taxes.

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