Hillary Clinton is not at death's door, contrary to the current rumblings on the Internet's fever swamps. When she and her husband do die, however, their daughter will mostly avoid taxes on the hefty inheritance these two public servants will hand down.
Bill and Hillary, like most millionaires whose wealth is mostly in housing and liquid assets, have engaged in sophisticated estate planning to avoid the death tax.
"Through the establishment of property and insurance trusts," Time magazine reported this summer, "the couple has employed tax strategies that ensure that, after they die, at least some of their millions of dollars in assets will be shielded from the estate tax."
Specifically, the Clintons placed their Chappaqua home — the one that housed the secret servers Hillary used to evade transparency laws — into two separate trusts. For complex reasons, this protects Chelsea from having to pay the estate tax when she inherits the house.
The Clintons also hold five life insurance policies, worth somewhere around $2 million. This is "designed to transfer assets outside of the estate," one estate planner told Time. Life insurance payouts are generally exempt from death taxes.
At this point, it's important to remember that Hillary Clinton is campaigning on increasing the death tax. Her donor/opponent, wealthy real-estate heir Donald Trump, says he'll abolish the death tax. "He would, by eliminating the estate tax, save the Trump family $4 billion," Clinton said in August, "and do absolutely nothing for 99.8% of all Americans."
So is Hillary a hypocrite, lobbying for a higher estate tax while doing everything she can to avoid paying it herself? That's a question of taste. There's a more interesting story told by Hillary's extraordinary efforts to avoid the estate tax. The death tax brings in a paltry sum for Uncle Sam, but it provides a windfall for a couple of tiny segments of the economy: estate planners, and well-funded investors who buy out the family businesses threatened by the death tax.
Jeff Ricchetti is a longtime Clinton confidant, a revolving-door corporate lobbyist on K Street, and a donor to all of Hillary Clinton's campaigns. (Jeff's brother and former business partner Steve Ricchetti is Joe Biden's chief of staff.)
Jeff has spent two decades lobbying to preserve and expand the death tax. In 1999, When Jeff cashed out of the Clinton administration, he joined the Podesta Group, co-founded by Clinton's current campaign manager John Podesta. One client there: the American Council of Life Insurers, where Ricchetti lobbied in favor of taxing inheritances.
After Ricchetti and his brother formed their own law firm, they took on as clients the Association of Advanced Life Underwriters. For AALU, the Ricchettis — along with Clinton pals Gene Sperling and Mark Penn — ran a populist-themed campaign in defense of the death tax. The Ricchettis launched the Coalition for American Priorities, which AALU backed, according to National Underwriter magazine.
"Coming up with what's dubbed the 'Paris Hilton tax cut' was sure political genius," AALU's in-house lobbyist Marc Cadin said at the time.
Life insurers, such as the members of ACLI and AALU, sell estate-planning products that could become worthless — or at least worth less — if parents were simply able to hand the fruits of their life's work to their children.
That's why in April, TheTrustAdvisor.com ran a piece headlined "Estate Tax Repeal: Has Hillary Become the Estate Planner's Best Friend?"
"Eliminating the estate tax liability" the publication warned, "would wipe out entire suites of planning techniques: life insurance to pay the IRS at the end, management of marital exemption portability, you name it."
Billionaire investor Warren Buffett is also campaigning for Clinton. Not only does Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway own stakes in life insurance companies, but Berkshire has profited from the death tax in another way: by buying up family-owned businesses forced by the estate tax to sell.
That's the inequity of the tax: it favors money over stuff, and finance over industry. If your family business involves lots of inventory or equipment, you may have to liquidate once mom and pop pass away. If your family business instead involves celebrity and connections to power, it's easy to minimize the tax and pay what you do owe.
Public service has treated Bill and Hillary Clinton very well. They've turned their proximity to power into a fortune. They know how to protect that fortune from estate taxes Hillary supports. Their friends and donors — Buffett, Ricchetti, Penn, Podesta — know how to profit from the taxes.
Timothy P. Carney, the Washington Examiner's senior political columnist, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. His column appears Tuesday and Thursday nights on washingtonexaminer.com.