Taxes are often called one of the sure things in life. In Maryland, some say that they're one of the sure things in death, too.

The Free State is one of 13 states that still levy an inheritance tax in addition to the more common estate tax. But that may change.

Maryland's top three lawmakers now are saying that they'd like to cut or abolish the state's inheritance tax. The state can afford the move, they say, because of a booming budget surplus that is projected to easily top $600 million during this fiscal year.

So-called death taxes were established decades ago as a way to raise revenue and redistribute wealth. But they have long been a target of tax foes in Maryland and across the country. During the past two decades, 20 states have eliminated them, including Virginia.

"It's an unfair tax," said state Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Prince George's). "While we have this surplus, it gives us an opportunity to right a wrong."

Miller said he is in favor of exempting spouses from inheritance taxes and will look at the costs before deciding whether it should be extended beyond that. House of Delegates Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. (D-Allegany) said he supports abolishing the tax, and a spokesman for Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) said the governor is "very receptive" to either cutting or abolishing it.

The inheritance tax is separate from the estate tax, which is levied on heirs who must file a federal estate tax return. Although the federal estate tax is imposed only on estates valued at $650,000 or more, state inheritance taxes typically are imposed on smaller estates as well.

In Maryland, the only exception to the inheritance tax is a partial one for spouses, who do not pay it on real estate, jointly held property or the first $100,000 of other assets. The tax rate is 0.9 percent for spouses, children, parents and other lineal relatives. Siblings are taxed at 8 percent, though that rate is scheduled to decrease to 5 percent next year. All other heirs pay 10 percent.

"When you talk to people about these taxes, they cite the unfairness of a tax that's essentially a tax on after-tax assets," said James L. Martin, president of the 60 Plus Association, an Arlington-based lobbying group for seniors that is pushing for repeal of the federal estate tax as well as Maryland's inheritance tax. "They cite the unfairness of a tax that's imposed after you die."

Martin and other opponents of these taxes said they often fall heaviest on small businesses and farmers, or heirs who are "cash poor" despite their sizable inheritance.

They point to people such as Jeannine Mizell, of Montgomery County, who runs Mizell Lumber and Hardware in Kensington with her brother, Donald. The lumber company was founded by their grandfather in 1921 and then run by their father until his death in 1984. They inherited ownership from their parents when their mother died in 1990.

Jeannine Mizell said she was shocked when she learned upon her mother's death that they would have to pay more than $350,000 in federal estate taxes and more than $30,000 in Maryland inheritance tax. They were able to hold on to the business that had been in the family for seven decades because they were allowed to spread the federal payments out over 14 years. On top of that, they paid more than $40,000 in attorneys' fees.

"My father worked six days a week, 52 weeks a year for 37 years. He paid himself a modest salary, he invested in his business, he worked hard and he paid his taxes. He wanted to leave something for his children and his grandchildren," she said. "Yet if it wasn't for the fact that he was so careful about putting his money away, we wouldn't have had the cash to pay these taxes."

For most of the 60,000 or so Marylanders affected by the tax each year, the bite isn't that big. But it can be a pain anyway. "It's the estate taxes that take the big bite," said Darrel Drown, a Howard County financial planner. "But people complain about it. They're upset by the whole gamut."

Still, supporters of abolishing the inheritance tax note that the state's death taxes pinch the wealthy as well as those who are less well off. "There are a lot of people in my district who are impacted by this tax. I've looked at it and talked to people in my county, and it's something that people are concerned about," said Del. Obie Patterson (D-Prince George's).

But some note that there are other taxes lawmakers could look at cutting if their goal is to reduce the burden on most citizens. "There are a lot of other taxes that hit ordinary Marylanders a lot harder and a lot more frequently," said Robert McIntyre, director of the Washington-based Citizens for Tax Justice.

Patterson has resubmitted a bill to abolish the tax for the upcoming session, and state Sen. Thomas L. Bromwell (D-Baltimore County), the Finance Committee chairman, is sponsoring similar legislation in the Senate.

State legislative analysts projected that the net cost to the state would be about $52 million in lost revenue should a full repeal of the tax be approved, yet supporters said the actual cost will be lower because the state no longer will have to pay the administrative costs of collecting the tax.