Exemption Amount Change - While $1 million was scheduled for the exemption amount for 2011 the new act implements a $5 million exemption per person. Thus, a married couple could pass on $10 million without worrying about federal estate taxes. With these type of numbers, there will be very few estates that will have any federal estate liability. In addition, for those individuals that passed in 2010, their estate can choose either the old 2010 "no estate tax - carryover basis" rules or the new "$5 million exemption - stepped-up basis".
Portability - In somewhat of a surprise, one of the bigger changes was the addition of the idea of portability. The idea is essentially if your spouse doesn't "utilize" their exemption amount, the surviving spouse can take advantage at their death. Previously, unless the assets were properly titled, it was possible that the first-to-die spouse may not use their exemption and it is lost forever for no one to use. Portability concept avoids that situation. However, it creates different "issues" that arise out of second marriage situations.
Gift Tax Exemption - The lifetime gift exemption was matched to the federal exemption amount as well ($5 million). Thus lifetime and/or death transfers up to $5 million are permitted.
However, while Congress did make some changes, at the last minute, it is only temporary as the provisions will expire December 31, 2012. I suspect I'll have to re-post my comments from last month about the "what if" scenario, which include the scheduled return of a $1 million exemption. On the night of the BCS national football championship, it is appropriate to describe this move by Congress as a "punt".