New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner is the fourth known U.S. billionaire to die during 2010, according to Forbes magazine. Why is this significant? Because there is no estate tax in 2010, meaning that the U.S. Treasury has lost billions in tax revenues unless Congress acts between now and the end of the year to reinstate the tax retroactively. Steinbrenner was worth an estimated $1.5 billion, meaning his heirs could save as much as $600 million in taxes because he died this year. Steinbrenner’s wealth — mostly consisting of the Yankees, a new stadium and a regional cable network — could pass to his wife tax-free even if the estate tax were in effect, but this year she might have an incentive to disclaim (or turn down) any bequest, which would allow the assets to pass to Steinbrenner’s four children free of federal tax. (But, as the Probate Lawyer Blog points out, Steinbrenner’s family would have to pay a huge capital gains tax if it were to sell any highly appreciated assets, since along with the disappearance of the estate tax, there is no “step-up” in the cost basis of inherited assets during 2010.) The other billionaires to die in 2010 are Janet Morse Cargill of the family that founded Cargill Inc. (net worth: $1.6 billion), Texas pipeline magnate Dan Duncan ($9.8 billion), and California real estate mogul Walter Shorenstein ($1.1 billion). By rough calculation, their deaths in 2010 have cost the government some $6.5 billion.
Motivated by the billion-dollar estates passing to heirs tax-free, Sen. Bernard Sanders (I-VT) and four co-sponsors have introduced a bill that would return the estate tax to the 2009 exemption level of $3.5 million but add a progressive tax rate structure that would start at 45 percent, rise to a top level of 55 percent, and add a 10 percent surtax on billionaires. The proposal would be retroactive to the start of 2010.
The Responsible Estate Tax Act (S. 3533), introduced on June 24, 2010, is cosponsored by Sens. Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Al Franken (D-MN), Tom Harkin (D-IA), and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI). According to its sponsors, the proposal would bring in at least $264 billion over a decade while exempting 99.7 percent of Americans from paying any estate tax. The retroactivity provision would likely face a court challenge from heirs of wealthy individuals such as Steinbrenner.
“At a time when we have a record-breaking $13 trillion national debt and an unsustainable federal deficit, people who inherit multimillion- and billion-dollar estates must pay their fair share in estate taxes,” three of the senators said in a letter accompanying the bill’s release.
The year without an estate tax is a creature of the Bush tax cuts. Under the provisions of a tax-cut bill enacted in 2001, the value of estates exempt from the tax gradually went up over the past eight years while the tax rate on estates was reduced. During 2010, according to the 2001 law, the estate tax disappears entirely, only to be restored in 2011 at a rate of 55 percent on estates of $1 million or more, which is where things stood before the 2001 change.