Estate Tax or Death Tax — Who Actually Pays Any?

Want to read about the debate over estate tax reform/repeal/reinstatement? There is plenty of literature. You can easily learn about the history of the estate tax (going back to 1797 in the United States, or to the 7th century BCE elsewhere).

Want more? You can see the arguments in favor and against the estate tax, repeated endlessly, in any number of articles. Is the estate tax unfair double taxation, or an important tool to prevent outrageous asset accumulations?

How about real-life stories? You already knew that George Steinbrenner saved his family $600 million by managing to die during 2010 (although it turns out that the actual savings is much murkier and, probably, not near that number). But you probably have not heard of Iowan Eugene Sukup, who at 81 is contemplating what will happen to his considerable estate — and the family business — when he dies.

Maybe you make your decisions on the basis of the positions of famous people. How about what Bill Gates, Sr. (not the software innovator, but his father, who has spoken and written extensively on this subject) says about the estate tax? How about Alan Greenspan, former Federal Reserve chairman? Turns out it’s easier to find wealthy people speaking out in favor of the estate tax (albeit a “reasonable” estate tax) than against the tax altogether, but perhaps that is just because it is such a surprise, at least at first blush.

You know what is missing from most of the debate — and reporting — on the estate tax? Real numbers. Except for that last reference (the Washington Post’s “PostPartisan” blog), there is almost no mention in any of the articles collected here about how many people actually pay — or would pay — an estate tax on death. Are you curious? You may be surprised by the answer.

The best reference we could find is a December 18, 2009, report from the Congressional Budget Office. The non-partisan CBO manages, in a dense but readable 12-page report, to explain the interrelationship of the estate tax with gift taxation and the generation-skipping tax, provide a history of the revenue generated through the estate tax (shown as a percentage of all federal receipts), and describe the effect of all of the major proposals being considered by Congress.

It turns out that in 2004, when the estate tax applied only to estates worth more than $1.5 million, there were 19,294 estate tax returns on which the decedent’s estate owed any money to the federal government. That amounts to .82% of all deaths in 2004. Compare that to 1.14% of deaths in 2003 and 1.17% in 2002; in both of those years the estate tax applied to estates worth more than $1 million. Those details, incidentally, come from the Internal Revenue Service’s Spring, 2009 Statistics of Income Bulletin (if you try to locate the figures yourself, you’ll want to scroll down to page 222 of that lengthy report). The IRS has updated the figures for 2005 and 2006 and, not surprisingly, the percentage of taxable estates has dropped further. In 2005 (with a taxable level of $1.5 million, the same as in 2004), the percentage of taxable estates was .95. In 2006, when the taxable estate level went to $2 million, the number of estates reaching that level dropped to .63%. That was the smallest percentage since at least 1934, when the current tax code was first adopted.

So what does this all mean? Basically, with an estate tax level at about $1 – 1.5 million, right around 1% of decedents will pay any tax at all. At the $2 million level, that percentage drops to about 2/3 of 1%. If Congress proves to be paralyzed, by partisanship or otherwise, and the estate tax drops back to the $1 million level in 2011, then about 1% of decedents’ estates will, presumably, have to pay estate taxes.

That is not the end of the story, of course. It is not, for instance, the same thing as saying that 1% of people are worth a million dollars, or slightly more. Why are they not the same thing? For a variety of reasons, including:

  1. Decedents are, of course, older than the general population. It is likely that the decedents in a given year are somewhat wealthier than the population as a whole, but the statistics we have described here do not show that or even hint at how much difference we should expect. One thing the statistics DO take into account: the IRS removed deaths of children from the figures, so the percentage of ALL deaths paying estate taxes would be slightly smaller.
  2. Decedents with estates of just over the taxable limit have a variety of estate planning options to avoid any estate taxes. Married couples can plan to preserve the exemption for each spouse, those with slightly larger estates can use lifetime gifting, and devices like family limited partnerships and limited liability companies can reduce the value of the estate for tax purposes. Money left to charities or surviving spouses escapes taxation altogether. It is likely that a significant percentage of decedents transferred an amount of property to heirs that would have been taxable but for such techniques.
  3. Even if 99% of decedents avoid estate taxes completely, that does not mean that the estate tax system had no effect on any of them. Presumably another small but significant percentage (perhaps 1-5%) expended at least some funds on the estate planning necessary to avoid estate taxation. We know of no study indicating how many have done so, or at what cost.
  4. Inflation (if there is any) and wealth concentration trends will have continued since the 2002/2003 figures were calculated. In those years the percentage of decedents’ estates paying any estate tax were 1.17 and 1.14, respectively; of course, with the significant reductions in net worth for many Americans since those years the figures might actually drop for 2011. Over time, however, the percentage should be expected to grow. As it did, for instance, between 1987 and 1999, when the estate tax level remained constant at $600,000. During those twelve years, the percentage of estates subject to any tax increased from .88% (in 1987) to 2.3% (in 1999).

Of course, the estate tax level increased to $3.5 million in 2009 (before being eliminated entirely in 2010). The result of that near-doubling of the taxable level in one year has not yet been calculated and published. It will be interesting to see.

One final thought about the statistics developed by the IRS and the CBO: in 2004, with a taxable level higher than ever before and with the smallest percentage of decedent’s estates paying any tax whatsoever in the history of the modern estate tax, the IRS brought in a total of $22.2 billion. That was the fourth-highest haul in the history of the tax, and was about $4.5 higher than the two previous years, with taxable levels at $1 million (rather than the $1.5 million of 2004).

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2 Responses

  1. Hi, Robert. I am updating my website (not yet uploaded nor ready for prime time) and I am (per your recent suggestion) linking to yours.
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    I think I should visit your page more often.
    Stay well—I also enjoyed Robyn’s….see it runs in the family.
    Chris Gilsinan (St. Louis)

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