The Center's work on 'Estate Tax' Issues


John Oliver Debunks Some Estate Tax Myths

July 14, 2014 at 4:55 pm

John Oliver’s HBO show this weekend featured a segment on income and wealth inequality (warning: colorful language!), and Oliver cited our paper showing that 99.86 percent of all estates in 2013 owed no estate tax (see chart).

As Oliver mentioned and our paper explains, contrary to the myth that many people face the estate tax, the first $5.25 million of every estate (effectively $10.5 million per married couple) is exempt from tax (with that level indexed for inflation).  That means that very few estates owe any tax.  For those few that did in 2013, the “effective” tax rate — that is, the percentage of the estate’s value that is paid in taxes — was 16.6 percent, on average.  That’s far below the top estate tax rate of 40 percent.

Rather than cutting investments in areas like education, medical research, and environmental protection in order to reduce the deficit, policymakers should be looking to strengthen the estate tax.  Learn more about the myths and realities of the federal estate tax here.

Greenstein on President Obama’s New Budget

March 4, 2014 at 1:47 pm

CBPP President Robert Greenstein has issued a statement on the President’s fiscal year 2015 budget:

President Obama’s new budget is a solid blueprint that would reduce deficits, alleviate poverty, and boost investment in areas needed for future economic growth, such as infrastructure, education, and research.

On the deficit front, the budget confounds the recent predictions of some pundits by including, rather than eschewing, deficit reduction.  While offsetting the costs of its new investment initiatives by cutting spending and scaling back tax breaks, the budget goes further by reducing deficits enough to put federal debt as a share of gross domestic product (GDP) on a declining path.  With about $1.7 trillion in deficit reduction over the next ten years (excluding the savings from winding down operations in Afghanistan), the budget would reduce the debt-to-GDP ratio to 69 percent in 2024.

As previously announced, the budget doesn’t include the proposal in the President’s budget last year to switch to the “chained Consumer Price Index” in calculating annual cost-of-living adjustments in Social Security and other programs.  It does, however, retain the $400 billion in Medicare savings in last year’s budget, including about $60 billion in Medicare beneficiary reductions (through increases in premiums for affluent beneficiaries, increases in some co-payments, and changes affecting Medigap coverage).

On the poverty-fighting front, the budget features an important proposal to boost the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) for low-income workers who are not living with minor children — a measure many analysts across the political spectrum believe holds considerable promise for reducing poverty and also increasing labor-force participation, including among young minority men.  Single low-wage men and women are the one group of Americans whom the federal tax code literally taxes into — or deeper into — poverty.  The Obama proposal, which builds on a long bipartisan tradition of support for the EITC, would substantially address that problem.

No one should declare this budget “dead on arrival,” for two reasons.  First, under the Murray-Ryan agreement of last year, both parties have agreed on the total amount available for appropriated programs this year, and the Obama budget includes program-by-program requests that hit that total.  Consequently, the budget’s appropriations requests will likely play an important role as the Appropriations Committees craft the annual funding bills this year.

Second, with no big budget showdowns or deadlines looming this year, 2014 likely won’t be a year of significant budgetary action beyond the appropriations bills.  But 2015 may well be.  Policymakers likely will seek to negotiate another budget deal to ease the scheduled sequestration budget cuts for 2016 and beyond and also may consider tax reform and other measures.  Both the new Obama budget and the budget proposal that House Budget Committee Chair Paul Ryan will unveil in a few weeks will offer dueling frameworks for a year-long debate on where fiscal and program policy should go, in advance of larger decisions next year.

The vision reflected in the Obama budget will provide a much sounder course than the one we’ll likely see in the Ryan budget.  That’s because the Obama budget curbs lower-priority spending and unproductive special-interest tax breaks in order to make investments that the nation needs for future prosperity, reduce poverty and better reward low-paid work, and give many young children a better chance of success, while reducing mid-term and long-term deficits at the same time.

“Blank Slate” Approach to Tax Reform Leaves Biggest Question Unanswered

June 28, 2013 at 11:54 am

Yesterday’s call from Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus and ranking Republican Orrin Hatch to initiate tax reform with a “blank slate” that doesn’t include any of the deductions, credits, exclusions, and other tax breaks collectively known as “tax expenditures” leaves a critical question unresolved:  what will policymakers do with the proceeds from narrowing or eliminating tax expenditures?

Will they use a substantial share of the savings to help put together an alternative to sequestration or otherwise devote such savings (presumably in conjunction with spending reductions) to the long-term deficit reduction that the nation needs?  Or will the savings go entirely to cutting tax rates?

Using some of the savings as part of a responsible, balanced alternative to sequestration —thereby averting harsh cuts in areas ranging from national security to education, medical research, and Head Start — and to help put the nation on a firmer long-term fiscal footing ought to be a higher priority than the pursuit of ever-lower tax rates.

Tax reform that curbs unproductive tax expenditures surely has merit.  Yet revenue-neutral tax reform would be highly problematic, as it would likely take revenues off the table for deficit reduction for years to come by using up virtually all politically achievable reductions in tax expenditures.  That, in turn, would likely take mandatory programs off the table for deficit reduction as well, because many policymakers would justifiably reject large mandatory cuts in the absence of new revenues.

In addition, policymakers face an immediate need to replace the harmful sequestration budget cuts, which are affecting defense and non-defense programs alike, with a mix of savings from tax expenditures and mandatory programs.  But revenue-neutral tax reform could foreclose that option by using up all of the politically achievable tax expenditure savings to pay for tax-rate reductions.

An essential ingredient of tax reform — and the one target for policymakers to specify in advance — is therefore a revenue target: one that contributes to a balanced deficit-reduction package that includes replacing sequestration.  Revenues raised through tax reform — including through a “blank slate” approach — should go to lower rates only after this target has been met, as most budget agreements under discussion over the past few years would have done.

This means that while policymakers may have useful exploratory discussions on tax reform now, they should defer actual legislative action until there is a larger fiscal policy agreement that includes a revenue target under which tax reform will contribute meaningfully to deficit reduction.

Rep. Brady’s Stunning Mischaracterization of the Estate Tax

June 25, 2013 at 11:48 am

Proponents of permanently repealing the estate tax often propagate various myths about it, but Rep. Kevin Brady (R-TX), who chairs the Joint Economic Committee and is a senior member of the House Ways and Means Committee, went a step further last week.  In introducing legislation to repeal the estate tax, Brady stated, “What kind of government swoops in upon your death and takes nearly half of the nest egg you’ve spent your entire life building?”

Well, not the U.S. government — not even close.  Rep. Brady’s characterization of the tax, highlighted in a news release he issued June 19 with Senate Finance Committee member John Thune (R-SD), the bill’s Senate sponsor, is not only flatly wrong.  It’s also highly irresponsible, in that it comes from such a senior member of two relevant congressional committees who should know the basic facts about the tax he’s proposing to abolish, at considerable cost to the Treasury.

The truth is this:  only a tiny sliver of estates pay any tax at all, and the very wealthy ones that do so pay at a rate that’s far less than half.  Repealing the estate tax would amount to a massive windfall for the inheritances of the wealthiest Americans.

  • Only the richest 0.14 percent of estates pays any estate tax at all. Only the estates of the wealthiest 0.14 percent of Americans — fewer than 2 out of every 1,000 people who die — now owe any estate tax whatsoever, according to the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center (TPC), because the tax is levied only on the portion of an estate’s value that exceeds $5.25 million per person (effectively $10.5 million per married couple).
  • Those paying the estate tax generally pay less than one-sixth of the value of the estate in tax, a far cry from Brady’s claim that nearly half of estates are taxed away. As noted, 99.86 percent of estates owe no estate tax at all.  TPC reports that among the 3,780 estates that owe any tax this year, the “effective” tax rate — that is, the percentage of the estate’s value that is paid in tax — is 16.6 percent, on average.  The 16.6 percent rate is far below the top statutory tax rate of 40 percent because taxes are due only on the portion of an estate’s value that exceeds the $5.25 million per-person exemption level and because heirs can often shield a large portion of an estate’s remaining value from taxation through various deductions.
  • Large estates consist of a large amount of “unrealized” capital gains that have never been taxed. The estate tax serves in part as a “backstop” to the capital gains tax.  Usually, capital gains are taxed when an asset is sold or disposed of and the gain is “realized.”  But if a person holds an asset that mounts in value until his or her death, this “unrealized” capital gain is exempt from the capital gains tax.  Research shows over half of the assets in large estates — those that contain more than $10 million in assets — has never been taxed.  Without the estate tax, those unrealized gains would escape taxation entirely.

Tax Day Roundup

April 15, 2013 at 10:40 am