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The estate tax is only a faint shadow of its former self. In 2009, less than one-quarter of one percent of deaths—just 5,500 decedents—will leave taxable estates, the smallest percentage since at least the Great Depression. In part, that tiny fraction reflects the current recession’s devastation of assets—the Fed estimates that the total value of household and nonprofit assets fell by about one-sixth between 2007 and the first quarter of 2009. But changes in estate tax rules over the past decade have played a much larger role than economic swings.
The Economic Growth Tax Relief and Reconciliation Act of 2001 (EGTRRA), best known as the Bush tax cuts, phases the estate tax out over a decade. The act raised the effective exemption incrementally from $675,000 in 2001 to $3.5 million in 2009 and dropped the top tax rate from 55 percent to 45 percent. The levy disappears entirely in 2010, only to return in 2011 under pre-EGTRRA law—a $1-million exemption and 55-percent top rate. The Obama administration has proposed making the 2009 parameters permanent and indexing them for inflation. Others would set a higher exemption and a lower tax rate.
So what’s happened?
For decades before 1976, only estates worth $60,000 or more owed estate tax. That threshold remained constant in nominal terms, so more and more estates had to pay the tax as economic growth and inflation boosted household wealth. In 1943, just under 1 percent of deaths led to estate tax payments; by 1976, that share had grown to 7.65 percent (see graph).Congress doubled the effective exemption to $120,000 in 1977 and raised it gradually to $600,000 in 1987, where it stayed for ten years. As the exemption rose, the share of estates owing tax fell to just 0.9 percent in 1987 before growing again because of the fixed exemption. In 1997, when a bit more than 2 percent of estates owed tax, Congress again enacted a series of increases in the exemption that would have reached $1 million in 2006. Deaths resulting in estate tax liability stabilized until EGTRRA set off the latest inexorable drop in taxable estates.
So what’s next? The share of estates owing tax is scheduled to drop to zero in 2010, thanks to the one-year repeal. Except Congress won’t let that happen. Smart money says Congress will extend the 2009 law for 2010—a $3.5-million exemption and a 45-percent tax rate—and then consider a permanent fix when they deal with the scheduled 2011 sunset of almost all of the Bush tax cuts. Senators John Kyl (R-Az) and and Blanche Lincoln (D-AR) want to shrink the tax below its 2009 level—they want a $5-million exemption and a 35-percent tax rate.
Few lawmakers now call for total repeal, though such a proposal would surely get lots of votes. Opinion polls show significant numbers of voters saying they would more likely vote for a candidate who favors repeal. Maybe they all think they’ll win the lottery or their next great idea will become another Google. In the real world, we’re spending a lot of time worrying about a tax that fewer than three in a thousand of us will pay. And, when we do, we’ll be dead.
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