Family-owned business across the country have extra reason to celebrate this Christmas season. President Trump will soon sign the GOP tax bill, which doubles the estate, gift, generation-skipping tax exemptions, effective Jan. 1, 2018. This change marks significant progress in the fight to eliminate the unfair and hated "death tax" from the code entirely.
The death tax has been a killer for family businesses, destroying roughly $1.1 trillion in capital stock in the economy since its inception, according to a report by the Joint Economic Committee. Less capital stock means fewer jobs, lower wages for workers, and slower economic growth for the country. According to the Tax Foundation, repealing the death tax entirely in tax reform would have created roughly 160,000 new jobs and boosted employee wages. While full repeal remains the goal, increasing the exemption protects a much larger swath of family business from the 40 percent death tax.
Under 2017 law, the IRS projects that roughly 50,000 families will be subject to the estate tax over the next 10 years. Last year, 12,411 estates filed and 5,219 paid the tax. Doubling the estate tax exemption will reduce the number of filers to approximately 4,600, and payers to 1,800 per year, according to Joint Committee on Taxation numbers. The new law reduces the death tax's tax base by 64 percent, according to JCT numbers. For perspective, in 2000, 52,000 estates were forced to pay the death tax. Bottom line: Next year, the estate tax will be the least burdensome it has been in its 101-year history, with the exception of 2010, when the tax was temporarily repealed.
Preserving family businesses through a fairer tax code should be an important priority for all policymakers. America’s family businesses are important pillars of their communities. Main Street businesses sponsor the local little league team, contribute to local civic organizations, and provide good paying jobs in every congressional district in the nation. Small family businesses are responsible for 60 to 80 percent of all net new jobs in the last decade.
Many businesses like family-owned distributors with multiple warehouses across a region are in competition with larger corporations — and there is no corporate equivalent for 40 percent tax at the passing of each generation. As long as the death tax remains on the books, it will continue to contribute to foreign buyouts and consolidation, ironically leading to more concentration of wealth among large multinational corporations, which is the exact opposite of the death tax's intended purpose.
But the main argument against taxing death is a moral one. No grieving family, rich or poor, should have to sell off land or equipment to pay an additional tax to Uncle Sam. The public overwhelmingly agrees. An NPR/Ipsos poll found that 76 percent of respondents said the death tax should be abolished. It would seem that while more work needs to be done, the support is consistently there to end this tax.
The fragility of the Senate created obstacles for a full repeal. The razor-thin vote margin and revenue limits of reconciliation meant that compromises needed to made, including stopping short of full repeal for both the death tax and individual alternative minimum tax. Both should remain candidates for full repeal in the coming years as the president seeks to fulfill his campaign promises.
The new law will sunset in 2025, so the fight on both sides of the aisle is not over. The tax bill provides historic relief for small businesses. Congress and President Trump should use this momentum to continue their push for full death tax repeal.
Palmer Schoening is chairman of the Family Business Coalition, a collection of organizations and industry groups.
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