Why You Shouldn’t Kill Your Rich Uncle Just Yet: Things You May Not Know About the Estate Tax Repeal

Estate and FInancial PlanningThe day is finally here. After hearing about it for the past nine years, the estate tax is repealed as of January 1, 2010. Yet, many questions remain. For example, one may wonder what will happen next year when the estate tax (presumably) returns and one is puzzled why U.S. Congress did not address the “estate tax issue” during the 2009 tax year.

The one-year repeal of the “death tax” was a typical congressional compromise. It involved the gradual decrease in marginal tax rates and increase in tax free amount (unified credit) through 2009 and the repeal of the tax for just one year in 2010. The current law reads that in 2011 the rates from 2001 will apply again (P.L. 107-16, 115 Stat 38 (June 7, 2001)).

What does this mean for taxpayers? Let’s assume Uncle Joseph’s taxable estate is valued at $5 million. If he died in 2001, $675,000 of the estate would have been tax free and the rest would have been taxed with a top marginal rate of 55%. Tax liability would have been about 2.17 million and effective tax rate about 43%. Had Uncle Joseph died in 2009, his tax due would have been $675,000 and his effective tax rate around 14% while a 2010 death would mean zero liability (see Table).

Year Top Marginal Tax Rate Unified Credit
(Exemption Equivalent)
Tax due after credit on $5 million estate Effective Tax Rate
2001 55% $220,550 ($675,000) $ 2,170,250 43%
2002 50% $345,800 ($1,000,000) $ 1,930,000 39%
2003 49% $345,800 ($1,000,000) $ 1,905,000 38%
2004 48% $555,800 ($1,500,000) $ 1,665,000 33%
2005 47% $555,800 ($1,500,000) $ 1,635,000 33%
2006 46% $780,800 ($2,000,000) $ 1,380,000 28%
2007 45% $780,800 ($2,000,000) $ 1,350,000 27%
2008 45% $780,800 ($2,000,000) $ 1,350,000 27%
2009 45% $1,455,800 ($3.5 million) $    675,000 14%
2010 NA NA No tax N/A
2011 55% $220,550 ($675,000) $ 2,170,250 43%

Questionable Policy Incentives

The stated policy reason for estate taxes has been that too much concentration of wealth is not good for a society. Aside from the fact that the estate tax has not done much in terms of reducing income and wealth inequality, the fact that Congress did not change the one-year repeal before January 1 of 2010, is an example of implementing quite questionable incentives. As the situation above shows, all else equal, the best year for Joseph to die is 2010. His heirs will receive the entire $5 million instead of only $4.3 million if he died in 2009 or $2.8 million if he dies in 2011. Of course, death of natural causes cannot be timed. What happens though if Joseph was in a serious accident in late 2009 without a DNR order in place? Would his heirs insist that he’d be kept alive until January 1 and then taken off life support? What if Joseph has an accident in December of 2010?

In order to prevent anybody of literally making life or death decisions in order to save taxes, Congress should have addressed the estate tax in 2009 before the repeal-year started. There were several proposals on the table. Considering the current budget shortfall and the Democratic majorities in both the House and the Senate it is not unlikely that the legislators will pass a law retroactively changing the 2010 repeal. Since tax returns are not due until nine months after the decedent’s death, a retroactive change is possible. For example, it may be possible that a “patch (i.e., keeping rates and credit like it was in 2009) will pass for 2010. Thus, contemplating death in light of a possible tax free year would be unwise considering the irreversibility of such action.

Other Negative Consequences

During 2001–2011 inflation was relatively low (around 2.3% on average). Using consumer price index measures, the value of a dollar in 2001 is about 1.25 more than in 2011. Given that in 2001, over 108,000 estate tax returns were filed, compared to only 38,000 in 2008 , we can assume that reverting back to 2001 law would mean that at least 130,000 returns will be due in 2011. This is good news to tax accountants but bad news for many individuals who did not expect to be subject to estate taxes.

In addition, the repeal of the estate tax for 2010 means that assets transferred at death during this year do not get a stepped-up basis. Thus, beneficiaries will have to pay larger amounts in income taxes when they sell the inheritance.

Last, the one-year repeal is also bad news for estates below the exemption equivalent. For these estates, the tax savings are zero while the elimination of the step-up in basis increases beneficiaries’ income tax when they sell the assets received. One can make the argument that this is a rule against the middle class and upper middle class since presumably most of these individuals would have never paid estate tax anyway but their heirs would benefit from the step-up in basis. If the law reverts back to 2001 law in 2011, the step-up will be back next year. Thus, while individuals with large estates have an incentive to die in 2010, others (most middle and upper middle class taxpayers) who have an estate below the exemption equivalent should not die in 2010.