Estate tax drama builds on edge of ‘fiscal cliff’

Kansas City StarDecember 12, 2012 

Glen Cope owns 500 head of cattle on about 2,500 acres near Aurora, Mo. Like most farmers and ranchers he's worried about the weather, the price he gets for his product, and the cost of fuel and feed needed to run his operation.

But as 2012 winds to a close, Cope -- and his neighbors -- say they're more worried about what might happen to their farms and families when they die.

A significant increase in the federal estate tax is possibly just days away. And without quick congressional changes, the farmers say, their heirs could face crushing taxes that could force the breakup of their decades-old family farms.

"It's on the minds of just about every farmer I visit with," Cope said. "We need to make it attractive for young people to return back to the farm, and the estate tax just takes any incentive away."

Much of the nation's attention in recent weeks has focused on other parts of the so-called fiscal cliff -- higher income tax rates and spending cuts -- so the changes in the federal estate tax that would take effect without a budget deal have largely escaped notice.

But they are dramatic.

Under current law, heirs pay a tax of 35 percent on the value of an estate above $5.1 million. On Jan. 1, the tax rate would jump to 55 percent -- on estate value above just $1 million.

Wealthier taxpayers are worried, of course, but farmers are especially concerned because the value of their land has exploded in recent years. Land selling for $1,000 an acre five years ago may now be worth five or 10 times that amount.

That's pushed the net worth of many farm estates far past the $1 million level. If the owner dies next year, his or her heirs would be subject to the higher tax rate on the lower threshold, forcing many of them to sell the property to satisfy the now-higher tax bill.

"People who didn't think they were affected before are finding out they are," said Blake Hurst, president of the Missouri Farm Bureau Federation. That includes widows who might own a small farm of 80 or 160 acres, he said.

"She would never, ever think she would be hit by the estate tax because the exemption was higher and the land wasn't worth that much," he said. "She hasn't done any planning at all."

There are strategies that can help owners of large estates avoid high taxes for their heirs. Life insurance proceeds, for example, can be used to offset the levy.

But paying life insurance premiums is expensive, critics of the estate tax say. That takes money away from farms and businesses that might be better spent on expanding employment or paying current expenses.

Politicians from farm states are working to change the law.

Republicans -- who have long criticized what they call the death tax -- say estate tax reform should be part of any fiscal cliff compromise.

"Death should not be a taxable event," said U.S. Rep. Sam Graves, Republican of Missouri. "At the very least we need to increase the exemption and drop the tax rate. We need family farms more than ever, and the death tax as it stands right now will force too many families to sell their land."

Sen. Roy Blunt, also a Missouri Republican, said he faces estate tax concerns across the state.

"Missouri has 100,000 family farms," he said. Of those, "15,000 farms would be impacted (by the new rates) ... More often than not, that means the family will have to sell the farm to save the farm."

But not everyone thinks the estate tax needs major changes.

Eliminating the tax, as Blunt, Graves and others have suggested, could add $250 billion or more to the federal deficit over the next 10 years, according to some estimates. Losing that revenue could complicate the math of any fiscal cliff compromise.

Even reducing the estate tax might provide a windfall for wealthy non-farmers. Three-fourths of the estate tax is now paid by heirs to the top 5 percent of earners, making it a tax that hits the children of the well-to-do while leaving out most low- and middle-income Americans.

More than 99 percent of estates owe no tax at all. Of estates that do pay the tax, only 6 percent are farms, the Congressional Budget Office said in 2005.

"The estate tax is best characterized as a tax on very large inheritances by a small group of wealthy heirs," said a recent statement from Chye-Ching Huang and Nathaniel Frentz of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Extending the current estate tax rates, as some have proposed, would cost the government $119 billion over 10 years, they said.

The Obama administration has proposed a middle ground. Its latest budget called for a 45 percent tax rate on estate values above $3.5 million, a plan that would hit roughly 7,000 estates, according to some estimates. It isn't clear if that plan will end up in whatever fiscal cliff agreement is reached.

The federal government began collecting an estate tax in 1916. President Theodore Roosevelt and others said heirs to great fortunes should not get a tax-free windfall when their parents died.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities makes a similar argument.

"It is appropriate that people who have prospered the most in this society help to preserve it for future generations through tax revenues that derive from their estates," it argues.

But Cope and other farmers insist they should not be considered rich, even though the value of their land has gone up. They are asset-rich, they say, but cash-poor.

"My farm is supporting three generations," he said. His rural Missouri ranch has been in the family since 1910.

He is 33 years old, with two children under 7 years of age.

"I want nothing more than for my children and my brother's children to have the same opportunities we've had," he said.

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