Although agreement seemed highly unlikely just weeks ago, Democratic support for a plan put forward by Republicans and accepted by President Obama seems to be gaining steam. The compromise in waiting would reinstate the estate tax at 35% for two years starting next year, with the first $5 million of an individual’s estate exempted. According to data from the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center, this plan would result in about 43,540 taxable estates in 2011, and raise about $34.4 billion.
Arizona Republican Jon Kyl authored the current estate tax provision accepted by the President. Although House Democrats offer tough opposition, it’s likely there are enough moderate Democrats to side with Republicans and President Obama to pass the bill. If Congress doesn’t act before the end of the year, the estate tax, which lapsed in 2010, is set to return at a 55% rate, with a $1 million exemption on January 1, 2011.
The battle over the state tax has long provoked heated philosophical debate. As Lee Farris, senior organizer on estate-tax policy for United for a Fair Economy, has noted, there’s more than simple politics at work as Congress works towards forging an agreement. According to Farris, “an agreement has proven more complicated than splitting the difference on the numbers because this has been cast as a moral issue” being debated between those who believe the estate tax destroys family businesses and those who argue it is necessary to preserve meritocracy in the U.S.
Interestingly, if a plan is passed this year, Congress may allow this year’s heirs to choose whether they factor taxes based on this year’s rules, whereby some inherited assets are subject to higher capital-gains taxes, or next year’s rules – whatever they may be. Stay tuned.