It's Tough to Find Anyone Who's Hurt by Estate Tax

I'm trying really hard to feel sorry for the rich. When they die, their estates have to pay a "death" tax, which means less for their heirs.

Poor kids. All that heavy lifting in the stock market by mom and dad, and the kids don't get to keep it all. Where's the justice? Who will stand up for the rights of the descendants of multimillionaires?

As it turns out, Congress will. Compassionately, conservatives voted en masse to phase out the tax on all estates, even those of billionaires.

The hearts of many a liberal bleed for big-money voters, too. President Clinton says he will veto the Republican bill, but the Democrats remain open to deals that would slash the tax substantially.

How astonishing, that it's so cool to worry about the rich.

Not that rich kids were mentioned aloud, in the speeches touting this first big tax-cut bill of the election season. Instead, Congress held itself out as the champion of small businesses and farms that otherwise might be sold to pay the taxes due.

You may or may not be among the wealthy, or feel their pain. But at least let me clear up who pays this tax, and when.

It is not a death tax. That's just a politically clever name. No one is taxed automatically, on death. Almost every inheritance in America (98 percent of them) is received entirely estate-tax free.

You'll owe zero on money left to a spouse or charity, and zero on estates of modest size. Taxes don't click in until your assets (minus debts and certain expenses) exceed a certain sum. Singles pay on net worth in excess of $675,000 (rising to $1 million by 2006). With planning, a married couple can exempt $1.35 million (rising to $2 million in 2006). Far more can be sheltered in other ways.

Estate taxes are not breaking up family farms. Economist Neil Harl of Iowa State University, who specializes in tax law for farmers, says that he has never seen a farm sold for this reason. Farmers, he says, are being used as shills for people who've grown rich on stocks.

Family farms already enjoy generous estate-tax breaks. Farms can be valued at perhaps only half of their fair market price. Any taxes due can be paid over nearly 15 years, at interest rates as low as 2 percent. And unlike most couples, farm couples can shelter up to $2.6 million from tax.

Almost all farms already pass estate-tax free, Harl says. Of the properties taxed, a significant portion belongs to absentee owners say, a Wall Street guy with an Idaho ranch.

Estate taxes aren't destroying small businesses, either. The small-business sector is healthier than ever (although you'd never know it, when heirs weep to Congress about the burdens they face).

Like farms, family firms get special breaks. With good planning, a couple can actually pass to the next generation some $5 million in business assets or $8 million in farm assets, says law professor Charles Davenport of Rutgers University.

Fewer than 48,000 estates paid any federal estate tax in 1998. Of these, just 1,200 were made up primarily of small businesses and farms. This is a crisis?

Phasing out the estate tax over the next 10 years would save $105 billion for America's wealthiest people (almost all of them not in small farms or businesses).

When part or all of a small firm is sold at death, family is usually the reason, not tax. Maybe none of the kids want to run the business. Maybe one of them does but the others want to be bought out. They'd be selling, estate tax or no.

I can think of plenty of important social issues on the public plate, from drug benefits for seniors, to care for the children of women leaving welfare for work, to crumbling schools. Yet Congress has paid more attention to the whining of multimillionaires.

It's such a great time to be rich. Americans worship their billionaires and, like all disciples, feel honored to meet their every wish. The working stiffs will shoulder the burden while life's big winners fly away.

Syndicated columnist Jane Bryant Quinn can be reached in care of the Washington Post Writers Group, 1150 15th St., Washington D.C. 20071-9200.

For reprint and licensing requests for this article, CLICK HERE.