At a speech Wednesday in North Dakota, President Trump vowed to eliminate the federal estate tax, calling it a "tremendous burden" on family farmers.
“We’ll also protect small businesses and family farmers here in North Dakota and across the country by ending the death tax,” Trump said. “Tremendous burden for the family farmer, tremendous burden. We are not going to allow the death tax or the inheritance tax or the whatever-you-want-to-call-it to crush the American Dream.”
Trump's rhetoric surrounding the “death tax” is deeply at odds with reality. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 0.4 percent, or 153 farms out of 38,328 farm estates, actually paid any estate tax in 2016. If you round to the nearest whole percent, it's essentially zero.
Under the estate tax, estates valued below $5.45 million don't have to pay any tax at all, or even file an estate tax return. The tax phases in for assets above that $5.45 million threshold.
But even the majority of estates surpassing that threshold don't end up paying any estate taxes. The USDA estimates that 1.7 percent of farm estates were valued at more than $5.45 million, meaning they had to file an estate tax return. But because of various write-offs and provisions in the law, such as alternative land valuation methods, less than a quarter of the estates that filed for the estate tax actually had to pay anything.
Still, for certain small farms — a very small number of them — there's no question that the estate tax can create hardship. In 2016, the typical small family farm (defined here as having annual cash income less than $350,000) subject to the estate tax had to pay 11 percent of the value of the farm estate, or about $600,000. In other words, imagine getting a tax bill that's twice your annual income.
Edge cases like this are what drives opposition to the estate tax, and 48 percent of Americans say they'd like to get rid of it, according to a May 2017 Quinnipiac poll. But these cases are far from typical. In 2016, estate taxes on all farm estates combined brought in about $344 million in revenue, according to the USDA. But that $344 million amounts to less than 2 percent of total annual estate tax revenue, which is around $20 billion.
Exempting farm assets from the estate tax would have little impact on the Treasury Department's bottom line. But that's a slightly more complicated argument to make than “end the death tax.” And it's not likely to appeal to wealthy political donors who don't own farms.