What Are Obama's Plans for the Death Tax?

January 14, 2009

An article in Monday's Wall Street Journal discussed Obama's plans for the federal estate tax:

Mark it down as the first tax increase of the new Democratic era. The Journal reported yesterday that President-elect Obama and Congressional leaders intend to maintain the estate tax rather than let it expire on schedule in 2010.

They will do so even though their economic stimulus plan is supposed to be about creating millions of new jobs in a hurry. The death tax strikes most heavily at small- and medium-sized family-owned businesses that generate the majority of new American jobs. So hitting these family businesses with a multimillion dollar tax bill when the owner dies won't help job creation.

. . .

Mr. Obama wants to make the current death tax rate of 45% permanent, along with an exclusion of $3.5 million ($7 million for couples). One issue to watch is whether this exclusion is indexed for inflation, or else over time it will hit more and more average earners who build up a small nest egg over a lifetime. Think Alternative Minimum Tax.

The death tax is supposed to be an easy way to extract revenue from the likes of Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, who support the tax. It won't. The super wealthy have foundations and other tax dodges to shield themselves from much of the tax. A 2006 Joint Economic Committee (JEC) study found that death tax "liabilities depend on the skill of the estate planner, rather than on capacity to pay." So much for tax fairness.

For more on the perils of the estate tax, see the May 2006 Tax Foundation Special Report "Death and Taxes: The Economics of the Federal Estate Tax" (PDF) and Gerald Prante's recent blog post "365 Days until Estate Tax Mayhem Begins."  Click here for a chart showing federal estate tax collections by state for 2007.

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