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'Death Tax' Divide

By Albert B. Crenshaw
Sunday, April 24, 2005; Page F01

With the House having again approved permanent repeal of the estate tax, the issue now moves to the Senate, where, although Republicans are in the majority, enthusiasm for wiping out what conservatives like to call the "death tax" is considerably more muted.

There are well-known philosophical and practical arguments on both sides of this issue. One side says the government shouldn't tax assets simply because the owner has died. The other side says the government ought not to allow vast accumulations of wealth, or cut taxes in the face of the large federal budget deficit.

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But if yours is the less philosophical "what's-in-it-for-me" view of the dispute, you may want to take a close look at the possible alternatives now being kicked around. Families in the upper middle class, for example, will likely find that full repeal is not in their best economic interest.

Current law, of course, calls for an end to the estate tax in 2010. But because of the sunset provision in the entire 2001 tax cut bill, the estate tax pops back in all its pre-2001 glory in 2011 unless Congress acts.

If lawmakers deadlock, which is possible, it won't matter much to the general public -- only a tiny fraction of estates would have to pay even the pre-2001 tax, although that number will be boosted by the explosion of house prices and growth of other assets.

But to the upper middle class and beyond, the outcome matters, potentially a lot.

To understand the debate, it's useful to look at the way the estate tax used to work, and still does work to a certain extent.

Generally speaking, a person's taxable estate is the total value of all that person's assets minus debts owed, and minus certain deductions, notably charitable donations.

Estates are also entitled to certain credits and other benefits, which reduce the taxes they have to pay. All estates are entitled to a credit that effectively exempts some or all of the estate from tax. This year the exempted amount is $1.5 million, rising to $2 million next year and to $3.5 million in 2009.

In addition, one spouse may bequeath an unlimited amount to the other spouse without tax.

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