The Proper Configuration of Death Taxation
The gift and estate tax, as it is today, creeps as a gimpy disfigured ogre. It raises little revenue. People put enormous efforts into avoiding it. The rates are punitive (going up to 50% in 2010), but they strike few people. I would venture that roughly double what the federal government actually collects in revenue is spent on lawyers, accountants, financial planners, and life insurance agents to avoid paying the tax. Because a provision in the congressional budget rules requires certain limits on tax cuts over a ten year forecast period, rates change bizarrely under the 2001 tax cut law. The estate tax drops each year until it reaches zero in 2009 whereupon it rises in 2010 to where it was in 2000 to meet the tax cut limits. Unless somebody knows exactly when they are going to die, it is impossible to forecast their estate tax burden – what a bonanza for financial planning professionals!
The Republicans generally oppose the estate tax entirely and push for its permanent repeal. The Democrats like it not so much for its paltry revenue but rather for its effect of diminishing dynastic fortunes and generally socking it to the rich. (People now use a plan called a dynasty trust to minimize the estate tax over generations.) Republicans argue that capable people should have the ability to dispose of their hard-earned fortunes. One wellspring for the ingenuity of the devices to avoid the estate taxes is that extremely successful people plot against it for years. Republicans also argue (and Democrats concur) that all of this effort to avoid the estate tax constitutes economic waste.
I agree with both the Democrats and Republicans here. I agree with the Democrats that we do not want the lesser grandsons and granddaughters of greater ancestors making ongoing decisions of great economic impact simply because of their lineage. Unearned wealth diminishes character, motivation, and ingenuity. At the same time, I agree with the Republicans that we should have a somewhat simpler system and that successful people should dispose of their earnings as they will. I agree with both that the financial planning industry is unproductive and over-sized. How to square that circle?
I propose to replace the estate tax with an elective inheritance tax payable at death. In an inheritance tax, the heir pays the tax, instead of the estate of the dead person. As the heir would not pay the tax until his death, he would enjoy the full use of the estate for his lifetime. He would have a set bill due from his estate and he would always know the exact amount due. If he elected to spend so much of his inheritance that the tax went unpaid, he could not direct the disposition of wealth to the following generation.
I think it would be fair to set the rate quite high. Perhaps even a rising scale of-- 5% if the grim reaper arrives in the first year, 10% in the second...(and after 25 years) 125%, and rising thereafter by 1% each year might be fair. This prevents the injustice of two people dying in rapid succession causing a double hit to a fortune. It also increases the tax effectively by 1% simple interest per year. What this would say to people is that they may choose to not work and instead collect butterflies and enjoy their parents’ largesse. But if they make this choice, they will surrender the ability to cosset their children. It would restore work incentives to indolent heirs and heiresses. Because successful people could dispense their entire fortune as they saw fit, it would incent them to create more wealth rather than spending time, energy, intelligence, and money trying to safekeep wealth from the IRS,.
Gifts are an additional problem under the current system. The Code tries to tie estates and gifts together, but the equal treatment frays around the edges. Gifts are taxed in order to prevent people from giving away their estate to avoid the estate tax. I have always thought it bizarre to make an act of generosity a taxable event. At the same time if somebody receives a gift, even of a million dollars, that money comes to them tax-free which seems nearly as bizarre considering the withholding from every worker’s paycheck. As it is more blessed to give than to receive, it should also be less taxed.
In this proposal, gifts and inheritances would both be subject to the inheritance tax payable at death. What should be the proper amount of gift below which no tax is owed, the exemption? I would suggest $20,000 per year with an annual increase for inflation. This number is meant to allow people to give away a nice but not extravagant car – the traditional way of setting the gift tax exemption. I would also tentatively use this as the bottom exemption on inheritances with perhaps an additional blanket exemption on the first X dollars of total gifts and inheritances to an individual. The tax increases with the amount a man gets rather than the amount he gives – a nice result.
If somebody subject to a future elective inheritance tax makes a gift greater than the exemption, he would have to post collateral of some sort (probably life insurance, although conceivably treasury securities or a bank letter of credit could be devised) to show that they were not trying to give away money which really should have been kept to pay the inheritance tax. If no collateral were posted, a really punitive gift tax would have to be imposed – say 300% -- with the gift subject to levy if there were insufficient assets in the donor. Charitable gifts would have to be treated here in the same way as gifts to individuals. This punitive tax would be creditable against the eventual tax at death.
The next question is how to treat people and other entities. The tax unit should be the marriage for married people (as today). Gifts and inheritances between spouses would be ignored, and each spouse would be treated as having received the other’s gifts and inheritances. The second-to-die would have the tax taken from her estate. An item of allocation in a divorce would be the inheritance tax liability. Trusts are another problem; probably inheritances to trusts should be treated as received by the beneficiaries. The use of complex trusts should decrease because of the problem of misallocation of the inheritance tax liability. Inheritances received by corporations would probably be treated as received by its shareholders.
When somebody makes a gift above twenty thousand dollars, he would be required to report it on a tax return as he does today, but only as an information return. The IRS would then send the recipient a bill/ schedule for the future liability for, say, the next 120 years depending on year of death. (If you received $120,000, you will be taxed on $100,000. Your estate will owe $5,000 if you die within a year (or perhaps by yearend if it is simpler to keep all items on a calendar year), $10,000 in two years, $15,000 in three, etc.) . The IRS would also send a bill to each heir based upon the closing of each estate which creates taxable inheritances.
This would allow the recipient to purchase a new sort of life insurance policy which would defray the inheritance tax liability. If a person became impoverished, they could surrender the life insurance policy and forego the ability to bequeath assets, but regain assets for living. Presumably any gain on the policy would be subject to income tax, and there would have to be some provision for prior taxable gifts. This life insurance policy should be feasible, although the design work should keep life actuaries busy for a while; e.g. the benefits and premiums would have to reduce for gifts made.
A recipient should have the right to refuse a gift (or inheritance) and the associated tax liability – imagine being given a really really ugly painting which is appraised at $10 million but difficult to sell.
How should we treat recently-inherited wealth? Obviously if we just exempt it, the revenue will suffer for decades. I would have the I.R.S. comb its gift and estate tax returns for the past [ten] years to develop the liabilities on prior gifts and inheritances or a lesser time if they cannot go that far back. OTOH, an estate or gift tax was paid at the time the inheritance or gift was received; taxing them again would be unfair double-taxation; the inheritance tax would have to decrease for the estate tax paid. The most accurate and revenue-productive method would be to simply allow a credit (accreted with time probably at 3% plus inflation) for an allocable share of the estate tax for each inheritance, although the complexity may be too great. If so, an arbitrary fractional adjustment of the inheritance tax for past inheritances would be simpler but less just. Fair treatment of existing trusts would similarly be complex.
Another question is what should be done with people who choose to expatriate themselves. I think the tax would have to be due and payable on that date. Another question would be inheritances from Americans paid to non-citizens.
Payment of this tax would be entirely elective. Each heir could choose to dissipate his inheritance completely and pay no tax, but then could leave no legacy as he received. People may object to this economic waste from the proposal; but I believe this waste would pale in comparison to the similar spending waste from today’s graduated estate tax.
I believe this proposal would be far simpler to administer, would collect materially greater revenue, would restore proper incentives both to successful people and to heirs and heiresses, and would dissipate unproductive dynastic wealth. Obviously many details would have to be fleshed out (including the ability of IRS computers to handle the workload) and reasonable rates and exemptions chosen. Enough revenue might even be raised to help defuse the medicare time-bomb. This would also be a powerful incentive for the federal government not to devalue the currency.
(N.B. – this is the personal suggestion of Levi from Queens and is the position of neither his business nor of any of his partners.)
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The Worse News Is, The Suicide Pact Is Working
Remember this entry? The Good News Is, The NYPD Is Competent. The bad news is, now the whole frigging world knows.
Here's a message on the Yahoo! Group "islamiccommunitynet" that bears this essential point out, that we can't successfully prosecute a war on terrorism in the court system: Message: US MUSLIM COMMUNITIES FINALLY CATCH ON TO POLICE SPIES
Wherever dajjal's police spies are found among the Muslims, they must
be rooted out. There must be zero tolerance for cooperation with the
The message in the Yahoo! Group quotes an NYT followup article
that seems to be gloating about the negative effect that the court case and its publication has had on the ability of the police to infiltrate the Muslim community:
Undercover Work Deepens Police-Muslim Tensions
By ANDREA ELLIOTT
New York Times
May 27, 2006
It is another thing for them to be officially revealed. Over the last
several weeks, during the trial of a Pakistani immigrant who was
convicted on Wednesday of plotting to blow up the Herald Square subway
station, Muslims in Bay Ridge learned that two agents of the police
had been planted in the neighborhood and were instrumental to the case.
They absorbed the testimony of an Egyptian-born police informer who
had recorded the license plate numbers of worshipers at a mosque. They
heard that an undercover detective, originally from Bangladesh, had
been sent to Bay Ridge as a "walking camera."
The trial's revelations, and its outcome for the defendant, Shahawar
Matin Siraj, have brought a bitter reckoning among Muslims in the
city. Many see the police tactics unveiled in the case as proof that
the authorities — both in New York and around the nation — have been
aggressive, even underhanded in their approach to Muslims.
the testimony. They're watching and learning! This is why the court system is totally unsuited to handle terrorists. Shoot them, disappear them, kick them out, who cares? Just don't give terrorists highly public trials. Is there any reason that we're giving terrorists today a courtesy we did not give Nazi saboteurs in WWII, who were simply shot?
Do these sound like the words you'd expect to hear from an innocent "community", or a guilty one that's pissed off it got caught?
"The vibe is not the same anymore," said Omar, 22, a Yemeni immigrant
who works at a bookstore and gave only his first name. "We're exposed."
Conversations are often carefully scripted. Several people interviewed
said they no longer discussed politics in public.
"When you sit down and politics comes to your head, you think, 'Who's
around?' " said Mohammad Gheith, 17, a high school senior who often
visits the smoke-filled Meena House Cafe on Bay Ridge Avenue.
Several blocks away, at a grocery store along Fifth Avenue, Mahmoud
Masoud said he sensed the presence of informers.
"Sometimes you look a person in the eye, there's a feeling," said Mr.
Masoud, 65, a Palestinian immigrant. "You can say anything you want,
but don't curse the system. That's what they care about."
Others in the neighborhood said they understood the need for
informers, and were not bothered by their presence.
Egyptian Osama Elsakka is an honorable exception:
Others in the neighborhood said they understood the need for informers, and were not bothered by their presence.
"They have to watch the community," said Osama Elsakka, 41, an
Egyptian immigrant who drives a limousine. Mr. Elsakka said that he
would readily inform the police if he heard something suspicious, even
if some of his friends considered this a betrayal.
"I'm trying to defend the image of my religion," he said, explaining
that he thought that a person who entertains thoughts of terrorism is
not a true Muslim. "If someone is doing that, they've been brainwashed."
A thimbleful of cognac to Bruce Tefft for this story.
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