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Financial Planning > Tax Planning > Tax Reform

Uncertainty Over Estate Tax Vote

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Supporters of estate tax reform legislation that would eliminate taxes on most estates and would cost an estimated 80% of full repeal were expected to fail in their efforts to push the bill through the full Senate after press time last week.

But despite the apparent inability of supporters of the reform proposal to get it through the Senate–it was passed by the House early in the morning of July 29–insurance industry officials caution that supporters of the current effort are likely to continue their efforts until Congress ultimately adjourns this winter.

Michael Kerley, senior vice president, federal government relations, at the National Association of Insurance and Financial Advisors, Falls Church, Va., said at press time, “It is never over.

“Even if the pro-repeal forces lose on the Aug. 4 vote, we expect them to keep trying. Any strategy or any tactic that could advance the full repeal effort would be a possibility, particularly up to the November election, or, in a lame duck session,” Kerley added.

The legislation the Senate was taking up last Friday is called the “trifecta” bill, H.R. 5970. Besides estate tax reform provisions that would eliminate the estate tax for most families, the bill includes provisions that would increase the federal minimum wage for most workers to $7.25 per hour, from $5.15 per hour, over three years, and extend the research and development tax credit and other popular tax breaks.

But the bill was running into trouble. Senate Finance Chairman Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, in a conference call with Iowa reporters on Aug. 1, said it is unlikely that supporters of the bill will be able to secure the 60 votes needed to proceed with a vote on the estate tax reform package. “I don’t think we’ll lose any [more] Republicans…but I don’t know where to get three more Democratic votes,” Grassley said.

And on Aug. 3, Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., said his efforts to block Senate debate on the measure was “more competitive.” He added, “I’m not saying the votes are all locked up with a pretty big bow on them, but this [bill] is even a little much for Republicans to swallow.

“You never take anything for granted, but I’m willing to vote Aug. 3,” Reid said.

The estate tax provision in H.R. 5970 increases the estate and gift tax exemption amount through a phase-in to $5 million per person effective Jan. 1, 2015, and then indexes it for inflation. It also reunifies the estate, gift and generation skipping transfer taxes and reduces estate and gift tax rates.

It says that estates valued at up to $25 million (indexed for inflation) will be subject to tax at the capital gains tax rate (currently 15%, set to increase to 20% in 2011 unless extended). Amounts in excess of $25 million (indexed for inflation) or more will be subject to a phased-in reduced rate of tax of 30%. The 30% tax rate is fully phased-in effective Jan. 1, 2015.

The bill is opposed by the insurance industry. For example, the Association for Advanced Life Underwriting supports “sustainable” estate tax relief that would provide a $2.5 million exemption per person and a top tax rate of 45%.

“This particular proposal goes well beyond our ideas of reform,” NAIFA’s Kerley said. “We back reform but reform that is more modest and sustainable politically out into the future.” He added, “This proposal loses about 80% of the revenue that would be lost if full repeal were adopted. We believe that 50% is about the right number.”

Dermot Healey, president of the AALU, said, “AALU continues to advocate for fair, fiscally responsible and permanent estate tax reform.”

The “reform” option passed by the House and under consideration in the Senate “would cost 80% of the cost of repeal when fully phased in–which we believe is unsustainable,” he said.


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