Behind growing case for an estate tax - of some kind

Hands up, those content to pay estate taxes to Uncle Sam - and expecting in time to do so.

What do you know: Some 435 wealthy Americans have raised their hands.

They responded to a campaign by a Boston advocacy group, United for a Fair Economy, aimed at blocking repeal of the estate tax, as proposed by President Bush. They got more than 200 signers and ran an ad in The New York Times Feb. 18, headlined: "If the estate tax is eliminated, someone else will pay. YOU."

This campaign, plus a growing awareness of the tax and revenue consequences of repealing the estate tax, have made it increasingly unlikely that Congress will eradicate the tax fully. It may be left partly in place for the larger estates that provide the bulk of its revenues, Washington reports indicate.

Repeal, the ad says, "would be bad for our democracy, for our economy, and our society [and] ... enrich the heirs of ... millionaires and billionaires while hurting families who struggle to make ends meet."

Among names at the bottom of the ad were William Gates, Sr., David Rockefeller, George Soros, and Paul Newman.

Since then, more than 200 others have signed on at www.responsiblewealth.com.

Less than 2 percent of the nation's families currently pay any estate tax at all. That amounts to about 48,000 estates per year.

As the stock market boom progressed, however, more and more Americans began to suspect their heirs would be subject to the tax. At present, an estate must exceed $675,000 to be subject to the tax - the price of a handsome house in some neighborhoods. This exemption level rises to $1 million by 2006. Estates of any size bequeathed to a spouse are estate-tax free.

As of 1998, there were 4.8 million people with net assets worth more than $1 million, 755,000 with assets exceeding $5 million, and 239,000 worth more than $10 million, according to Edward Wolff, a New York University expert on wealth.

Many in Congress may want to please this prosperous group. They provide the bulk of political campaign contributions.

But as the tax-cut debate heats up, more and more problems with estate-tax repeal are becoming widely known:

* It would be costly - $294 billion over 10 years.

* Most tax savings would go to the wealthy - an average $3.5 million windfall for those 2,400 estates with assets exceeding $5 million in 1997.

* Heirs acquire stocks, real estate, and whatever at their value at the time of death and pay no capital gains on appreciation prior to that time. The so-called "death tax" - which also covers large gifts - is in part substitute for the capital- gains tax. With repeal, a wealthy taxpayer could maneuver to escape capital-gains taxes entirely. He could give tax-free $9 million of, say, appreciated stock to an elderly relative who would will it back to him tax-free at death.

* The end of estate taxes would hit charitable giving. A Treasury Department analyst calculated giving by the wealthy would shrink about 12 percent.

The "Responsible Wealth" ad speaks of a "devastating impact" on charities, including colleges.

Advocates of repeal of the estate tax say it makes it difficult for owners of family farms and businesses to pass on these assets to their children.

But only a "teensy-weensy" number of such estates are actually affected, says Betsy Leondar-Wright, spokeswoman for Responsible Wealth. There already are special provisions to help these asset-rich families.

Indeed, Chuck Hassebrook, program director of the Center for Rural Affairs in Walthill, Neb., charges that repeal would make it harder for modest-size family farms to survive. That's because the heirs of large farms, many closely held corporations, would not be slowed down by the estate tax burden in their efforts to acquire more acreage by taking over smaller family farms.

Mr. Wolff opposes repeal of the estate tax on grounds of "fairness." Taxes should be apportioned according to the ability of people to pay. "Even if an individual warrants the amount of wealth he has acquired, there is no reason their children deserve that wealth. The children of the rich have less incentive to work."

Many disagree. One reason some work so hard is to accumulate wealth for their kids.

Wolff would rather see the estate tax replaced by a "wealth tax." He sees the estate tax as "too porous" - too avoidable. Most Western European countries have wealth taxes. Switzerland imposes an annual 0.05 percent tax on net worth above $100,000, 0.3 percent above $1.5 million.

That's less than what most mutual funds charge in annual fees, he notes. But it would raise about twice as much as the estate tax.

Chances of Congress substituting a wealth tax, though, are slim.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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