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Estate and Gift Taxes

Gifts, Testamentary Transfers, Deductions, Computation Of Tax, Further Readings

A combined federal tax on transfers by gift or death.

When property interests are given away during life or at death, taxes are imposed on the transfer. These taxes, known as estate and gift taxes, apply to the total transfers that an individual may make over a lifetime.

Estate and gift tax law is primarily statutory. Although the TREASURY DEPARTMENT issues regulations governing the interpretation of the revenue laws, and although state and federal courts contribute their interpretations of statutory law, the foundation of the transfer taxes rests in chapters 11 and 12 of the INTERNAL REVENUE CODE. To understand the complex statutory framework requires a basic understanding of the concepts underlying the estate and gift tax system. The transfer tax laws apply to all gratuitous shifts in property interests. But although administered similarly, the estate tax and gift tax have somewhat different goals. The gift tax reaches the gratuitous ABANDONMENT of ownership or control in favor of another person during life, whereas the estate tax extends to transfers that take place at death, or before death, as substitutes for dispositions at death. Both taxes are intended to limit the concentration of familial or dynastic wealth.

Estate and gift taxes became a source of political debate in the late 1990s, as many members of Congress pressed for an end to these taxes. They argued that such "death taxes" were unfair and forced small businesses and family farmers to sell off their assets to pay the estate taxes. Opponents of repeal noted that even though the potential tax rate was quite high, at 55 percent, most individuals never paid any estate or gift tax. Under the tax system that had been in place since 1986, every person could transfer a combined $600,000 worth of property during life and at death without paying tax. This tax-free allowance corresponded to $192,800 worth of federal tax savings and is known as the "unified credit against estate tax." This unified credit was sufficient to satisfy taxes on transfers by all but the richest five percent of U.S. citizens. Defenders of estate and gift taxes maintained that these taxes were guided by an important government and social policy: the prevention of large concentrations of dynastic wealth. Moreover, they pointed out that estate tax collections typically constitute less than two percent of total INTERNAL REVENUE SERVICE collections.

The debate on this issue culminated in the Economic Growth and Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2001. The top estate tax rate was reduced from 55 percent to 50 percent in 2002 (together with the repeal of the 5 percent surtax on estates over $10 million), 49 percent in 2003, 48 percent in 2004, 47 percent in 2005, 46 percent in 2006, and to 45 percent in years 2007 through 2009. The credit-level exemption was raised from $675,000 to $1 million in 2002, $1.5 million in 2004, $2 million in 2006, and $3.5 million in 2009. Most importantly, the estate tax was to be repealed in 2010. However, the law contains a "sunset" provision. If Congress does not extend the law beyond 2010, the new law will end on December 31, 2010, and the previous estate law will be in effect again. Since the political landscape undoubtedly will have changed, it is impossible to predict what will happen to the estate tax.

The gift tax was not repealed, but it was modified. The new law increases the total gift tax exemption from $675,000 in 2001 to $1,000,000 in 2002 and thereafter. After 2009, the gift tax is retained at the top INCOME TAX rate for the applicable year, which is currently 35 percent. The retention of the gift tax is meant to discourage transfers to lower income beneficiaries to minimize capital gains taxes.

With few exceptions, the individual making the transfer is responsible for any transfer tax owed (whereas, in contrast, the individual receiving income is responsible for any income tax owed). Thus, the executor of an estate, as the estate's representative, is responsible for paying any estate tax due, and the donor of a gift is responsible for paying any gift tax due.

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