It’s been awhile since serious consideration has been given to estate tax reform, but with the Jan. 1, 2013 deadline looming, more people are offering their views on the subject.
January 1 is the date that the current estate tax rules are set to lapse, triggering a return to the pre-2001 scheme.
The American Bar Association Tax Section has come up with a set of goals, starting with the need for predictability and stability in the federal transfer tax system. “When the transfer tax laws are unstable and unpredictable, as they have been for the past decade, responsibly planning one’s affairs is a project fraught with frustration,” according to its statement.
Larry Peck, a New York-based estate planning attorney, noted that the unpredictability of the rules leads to inaction on the part of clients. “Clients want to wait until they can figure out what needs to be done,” he said.
“But even under the Bush tax cuts, the changes were predictable,” he added. “There wasn’t the political uncertainty then that there is today. Now we don’t know if the estate tax will be abolished altogether or go back to the way it was in 2001.”
“It’s difficult to forecast the tax impacts on planning, because you’re dealing with this ever-flowing tax system,” agreed Thomas Duerre, CPA, managing partner and co-founder of Buffalo, N.Y.-based WNY Asset Management, LLC. “What the rates are today may not be what they will be on your client’s death bed, so in all cases you’re guessing.”
“We’re hoping that any reform brings some sort of long-term stability to the rates,” he said. “The answer is to come up with a fair representation of what should be taxed, and leave it alone for long periods of time.”
The current unified estate and gift tax exclusion amount is a good thing, according to the ABA Tax Section, and should be continued in any reform.
The reason for de-unification was that the Republicans thought the estate tax was going to eventually be eliminated, observed Peck. “They wanted to eliminate the estate tax, but not the income tax,” he said. “If there were no gift tax, then parents could transfer assets to children in lower income tax brackets, reducing their income tax liability, and the assets could be transferred back whenever they wanted. That’s why they kept the gift tax exemption at a million because without it there would be the possibility of too much income tax shifting.”
Americans for a Fair Estate Tax, a coalition of numerous “progressive” organizations, has come up with the Sensible Estate Tax Act, which it says will restore the estate tax to Clinton-era levels, which will then be indexed to inflation. The bill provides a $1.3 million unified exemption, or $2.6 million for married couples, with graduated rates up to a maximum marginal rate of 55 percent.
The proposal would also re-unify the gift and estate tax exclusions, make permanent the portability of the exemption for spouses, and restore the state credit.
Playing on the 1 percent versus 99 percent theme, the group says this exemption would shield about 99 percent of Americans from the tax. Among the groups supporting the measure are the YWCA, the National Committee for Responsible Philanthropy, and labor groups including the AFL-CIO and SEIU.
While I don’t know a lot of people who would be subject to the 55 percent rate, it does seem a bit confiscatory. Indeed, that’s what the coalition has in mind, seeing it as much a leveler as a revenue generator.
“The accumulation of inherited wealth is one source of the historically high levels of inequality that exist in America today,” said Katherine McFate, president of OMB Watch, one of the coalition members. “A vigorous estate tax keeps inequality in check and raises revenue for necessary public investments.”