The Internal Revenue Service completed a round of staff cuts in recent weeks, letting go nearly 100 employees from the division that oversees gift- and estate-tax returns, according to published reports.

The Associated Press said that the move was intended to keep pace with a shrinking number of estate-tax returns, and that the IRS has said it will still review the same percentage of returns as were audited prior to the cuts.

A total of 84 employees, mostly lawyers, accepted buyouts offered by the IRS, which had to be accepted by Jan. 3. The estate- and gift-tax staff now stands at 379 workers, and a spokesman for the agency said that it will hire agents to review return areas where it should be focusing more attention. The AP reported that estate-tax returns have a 25 percent audit rate, compared with a 2 percent audit rate for income-tax returns.

The Economic Growth and Tax Relief and Reconciliation Act of 2001, which raised the minimum for triggering the tax is responsible for reducing the number of estate-tax filings. The estate-tax unified credit exclusion has increased since it was $675,000 in 2001, and will be $2 million in 2006, 2007 and 2008 before rising to $3.5 million in 2009 and being phased out completely for 2010. However, unless Congress acts, the tax will be reinstated with an exemption of $1 million in 2011.

The AP also said that the IRS is projecting a 74 percent decline in the number of estate-tax returns to be filed from 2000 to 2008. More than 66,000 of the returns were filed in 2003, compared with just under 63,000 in 2004, and nearly 40,000 in 2005.

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