Bipartisan legislation introduced in the Senate that would freeze the estate tax law slated for 2009 is a positive harbinger of efforts in the next Congress for reasonable, sustainable estate tax reform legislation, say officials of the Association for Advanced Life Underwriting.

The legislation was introduced July 17 by Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del.; Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.; and Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio.

The bill would create a lifetime exemption of $3.5 million and a top rate of 45%, and would index the exemption level for inflation.

“For a prominent Republican senator–one respected on both sides of the aisle–to propose a fiscally responsible, sustainable reform proposal is a major step forward,” says AALU CEO David Stertzer.

“The efforts of Sen. Carper and Sen. Leahy to find middle ground on the estate tax issue are laudable, and Sen. Voinovich is a leader in pointing out national fiscal constraints and voting against measures like estate tax repeal that are unsustainable,” he adds.

Another AALU official, Luther Lockwood, chairman of its Business Insurance & Estate Planning Committee, adds that “bipartisanship, such as that displayed by these senators, is vital if we are to enact permanent estate tax reform legislation that will enable families and businesses to plan with certainty.”

AALU also notes introduction of H.R. 6499 in the House by Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash. This bill would freeze the $2 million estate tax exemption under current law in 2008, and impose other reforms.

One key provision provides for estate and gift tax reunification, by permitting lifetime gifts up to a maximum of $2 million rather than the $1 million gift tax limit applicable under current law.

“AALU and other trade groups, such as those representing attorneys and accountants, have urged that reunification be a feature of permanent estate tax reform because it encourages earlier planning and facilitates transmission of a larger portion of small businesses, farms and other assets to the next generation,” says Lockwood, who is managing director-national accounts with Wachovia Insurance Services, Winston-Salem, N.C.

In addition, the bill would provide for indexing of the $2 million limit to keep pace with inflation.

Finally, the bill would provide for “portability,” which would increase the exclusion amount for the estate tax by any unused exclusion from one or more (if married more than once) deceased spouse.