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June 10, 2011

Should We Abolish the Estate Tax?

Here’s a simple yes or no question: Do you personally favor or oppose completely eliminating the estate tax—that is the tax on property left by people who die?

After you have answered that question consider this. Suppose you receive an unexpected call from a lawyer who tells you that she represents the estate of your great Aunt Leona, who recently died. She goes on to tell you that, in her will, Aunt Leona left you a bequest of $100,000 in cash. Do you think you would you be required to pay federal income taxes on that amount?

When I ask my new tax students this question most assume that federal income taxes would be owed. But most students' assumptions are wrong, because under federal income tax law property received by bequest or inheritance (and even that received by gift) is excluded from the definition of income. So you would get the whole $100,000, free and clear of federal income taxes.

What about federal “death” taxes? Federal law does include what is known as an “estate tax,” which is a tax on the aggregate value of everything a person owned at death. Would that tax reduce the amount you received from Aunt Leona’s estate? No, because that tax is paid by the decedent’s estate after her death. You would receive your bequest in full after the payment of any federal estate tax that was due. But chances are overwhelmingly good that Aunt Leona’s estate would owe no federal estate tax anyway. The tax has for many years applied to only a very small fraction of estates. And that fraction keeps getting smaller.

In keeping with this trend, late last year, Congress passed, and the President signed, a law under which no federal estate tax is owed unless the estate exceeds $5 million in total value, less any substantial gifts made during lifetime. Decedents can also leave an unlimited amount to their surviving spouses without any estate tax becoming due. Those spouses can then generally leave up to $10 million in assets to the next generation without their estates being liable for any federal estate tax.

To put this in perspective, in 2007 there were probably no more than 600,000 total households in the U.S. with a net worth in excess of $10 million. Based on today’s total U.S. population of about 308 million people, this means that far less than 1% of the U.S. population will be exposed to this tax. Although the 2010 law is more generous than most prior laws in exempting wealth from the estate tax, the federal estate tax has for many years affected only 2% or less of estates.

Consider again the question posed at the beginning of this post—do you favor or oppose the complete elimination of the estate tax? In annual polls commissioned by the Tax Foundation and conducted by Harris Interactive in 2006-2007, 66%-68% of people favored completely eliminating the estate tax altogether when that question was posed exactly as stated in the first sentence of this post. Note how this poll question, given by an organization that describes itself as “a nonpartisan tax research group,” was phrased as all-or-nothing: the “complete elimination” of the estate tax.

Consider some more data. In 2010, Michael Norton of Duke University and Dan Ariely of Harvard Business School devised a survey wherein they asked a “nationally representative online panel to estimate the current distribution of wealth in the United States and to ‘build a better America’ by constructing distributions with their ideal level of inequality.” The results: most of those surveyed vastly underestimated the actual percentage of wealth owned by the top 20% of Americans—those surveyed guessed it was 60% when in reality it’s 85%. The survey takers estimated that the poorest 40% of the population owned about 10% of the country’s total wealth. The real number is three-tenths of 1%. Perhaps even more striking, over 90% of those surveyed (including Republicans) preferred wealth distribution like that of Sweden (35% of wealth owned by the top 20%) over the U.S. when asked which type of wealth distribution they would deem most just.

A common argument in favor of estate tax elimination is that it amounts to a “double-tax.” In other words, income is taxed to the recipient, and then when the recipient dies that income, now in the form of wealth, is taxed again by the estate tax. But there are at least three counterarguments here.

First, the person who “earned” the property (and presumably paid tax on it) is now dead, and the heir (the new owner) paid no tax. The money you received from Aunt Leona’s estate is no longer Aunt Leona’s, it’s now yours, and this is why so many people automatically assume that it is subject to the income tax. In fact, under the tax law’s general definition of income as all “accessions to wealth” it would be taxed if it were not for a specific exclusion written into the Internal Revenue Code for gifts and bequests.

Second, studies have shown that some 56% of estates of over $10 million consist of unrealized capital gains. This means that even the dead person paid no income tax ever on over one-half of what he is passing on. To give this some context let’s assume, for example, that Aunt Leona had left you a painting she bought for $100 that was now worth $100,000. She may have paid tax on the $100 she earned to buy the painting but would never have paid tax on the $99,900 in appreciation.

Finally, other income tax rules provide that the recipient can sell almost any property inherited at the value it was when inherited and pay no tax on the proceeds. In other words, when you sell Aunt Leona’s painting for $100,000, you can pocket the sales price free of tax.

So rules governing taxation at death are complex, but generally pretty favorable to the taxpayer. This brings us back to the question that we started with. Do you favor the complete elimination of the estate tax? Or does the question need context and the answer call for nuance?

Kent Schenkel

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