Following the death July 13 of Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, media reports have commented on the fact that the billionaire's heirs would be able to inherit the team free of estate tax. (The federal tax on the estates of millionaires has been repealed for one year in 2010.) Several stories have contrasted that result with the heirs of Miami Dolphins owner Joe Robbie and Chicago Cubs owner P.K. Wrigley, whose heirs reportedly sold the teams in order to pay the estate tax.
Those media reports say that the Robbie and Wrigley heirs had to sell the teams in order to pay the estate tax. But that isn't the real story.
To start, the sale of the Miami Dolphins had more to do with family infighting than taxes. Owner Joe Robbie left control of his estate (and the team) to three of his nine children. Not surprisingly, the other six didn't like how things were being run and filed a multi-million dollar lawsuit against the the executors. They reached a settlement designed to keep the team in the family "well into the 21st century," but the agreement soon fell apart and the heirs agreed to sell the team and split the proceeds.
The sale of the Cubs was not something that the heirs of owner P.K. Wrigley had to do. Four years after he died in 1977, the heirs sold the team, and this is usually reported as something they had to do to pay the estate tax. But there were any number of ways they could have paid the tax. The sale of the team raised only $20.5 million. The estate tax liability was estimated at $40 million which means that there was a net taxable estate of at least about $75 million. There were obviously other assets that could have been sold to pay the estate tax. The heirs chose to sell the team rather than any of the other estate assets, including any of their stock in the W. R. Wrigley, Jr. Company, the famous maker of chewing gum. (The company was acquired by Mars, Inc. for $23 billion in 2008, so we can bet the Wrigleys did pretty well.)
Remember that if a closely-held company (i.e., a company owned and run by members of the same family) makes up more than 35 percent of an estate, the tax code allows the related estate tax to be paid over 14 years. No heirs need ever sell the family business to pay the estate tax. In both of these cases, while the estate tax was a consideration, the teams were sold primarily for other reasons. The Wrigley and Robbie stories keep being trotted out mostly as a way for estate planners to scare their potential customers.
News reports that the Steinbrenner family has narrowly escaped a possible sale of the team to pay the estate tax are greatly exaggerated. The Steinbrenner estate, valued at $1.1 billion obviously has lots of assets with which to pay any tax. The estate probably also has the option of paying the tax over 14 years. So even if the estate tax is reinstated retroactively, we think it's safe to say the Steinbrenner family can keep the team if it wants to. Yankee fans can breathe a sigh of relief (or regret).