Estate Tax Proposal Would Partially Extend One of Bush's Tax Cuts for the Wealthy

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On January 9th, Congressman Earl Pomeroy (D-ND) introduced a bill (H.R. 436) to retain the estate tax with a per-spouse exemption of $3.5 million, essentially freezing in place the estate tax rules in effect this year. The Obama campaign has favored a similar approach to dealing with the estate tax.

Under the first tax cut enacted by President Bush in 2001, the estate tax is being phased out gradually. Under current law, if a wealthy person dies in 2009, the first $3.5 million of their estate is not subject to the tax. That exemption was scheduled to increase gradually under the 2001 law, until 2010 when the estate tax is scheduled to disappear completely. Like almost all of the Bush tax cuts, these rules expire at the end of 2010, meaning that the estate tax will return in 2011 and the pre-Bush rules will apply (including a $1 million per-spouse exemption). Congressman Pomeroy's bill would therefore prevent the estate tax from disappearing in 2010, but would constitute a significant tax cut for millionaires in years after that.

In December, Citizens for Tax Justice issued a report using the latest estate tax data from the IRS showing why the Obama/Pomeroy approach would be a huge and unnecessary tax cut for extremely wealthy families. The report found that only 0.7 percent of deaths that occurred in the United States in 2006 resulted in estate tax liability. The per-spouse exemption that year was only $2 million, which means that the estate tax will affect even fewer families with the $3.5 million per-spouse exemption in place.

Rep. Pomeroy's bill would also repeal new "carryover basis" rules scheduled to be effective next year. Under current law, when you inherit property from an estate, the "basis" of that asset for income tax purposes is stepped up to its fair market value (FMV) on the date of death. When the estate tax is fully repealed in 2010, the stepped-up basis rules are also scheduled to be repealed. The new general rule will be that the basis of the property will carry over from the decedent. (An exception to this rule allows $1.3 million of property to be stepped up to FMV, and an additional $3 million is stepped up if the property is left to a surviving spouse.) H.R. 436 would repeal the new rules prior to their effective date.

It's true that the new carryover basis rules scheduled to come into effect in 2010 under current law are difficult for taxpayers and administrators. How can we figure out what Aunt Sarah paid for her G.E. stock that she's had for at least 30 years when we don't even know when she bought it (or if she received it as a gift or inheritance)? And what if she's been reinvesting dividends all these years (which increase the basis)? A similar rule was enacted by the Tax Reform Act of 1976, but was repealed before its effective date in 1980 because of the outcry from taxpayers and practitioners about the impossibility of complying with the statute.

The phase-out of the federal estate tax also continues to hurt state treasuries. Most states base their state inheritance tax on the federal system and many have lost significant revenues because of the federal changes, including the loss of the credit for state estate taxes. In his budget proposal last week, Gov. Baldacci of Maine included changes to Maine law that would impose a Maine estate tax computed under the pre-2001 federal and state rules. Gov. Sibelius of Kansas has proposed delaying the state's scheduled elimination of estate taxes.

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