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The Estate Tax and After-Tax Investment Returns

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  • James Poterba

Abstract

This paper explores the effect of estate and gift taxes on the after-tax rate of return earned by savers. The estate tax affects only a small fraction of households -- taxable decedents represented only 1.4 percent of all deaths in 1995 -- but the affected households account for a substantial fraction of household net worth. The estate tax can be viewed as a tax on capital income, with the effective rate depending on the statutory tax rate as well as the potential taxpayer's mortality risk. Because mortality rates rise with age, the effective estate tax burden is therefore greater for older than for younger individuals. The estate tax adds approximately 0.3 percentage points to the average tax burden on capital income for households headed by individuals between the ages of 50 and 59. For households headed by individuals between the ages of 70 and 79, however, the estate tax increases the tax burden on capital income by approximately 3 percentage points. The effects are even larger for older households. The paper also explores the fraction of the net worth held by households that are subject to the estate tax that could be transferred to the next generation with a program a per donee exemption from gift tax. While roughly one quarter of potentially taxable assets could be transferred in this way, actual levels of inter vivos giving are much lower than the levels that would one would expect if households were taking full advantage of this tax avoidance strategy.

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Bibliographic Info

Paper provided by National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc in its series NBER Working Papers with number 6337.

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Date of creation: Dec 1997
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Publication status: published as Slemrod, Joel B. (ed.) Does Atlas shrug? The economic consequences of taxing the rich. New York: Russell Sage Foundation; Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 2000.
Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:6337

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  1. B. Douglas Bernheim, 1987. "Does the Estate Tax Raise Revenue?," NBER Chapters, in: Tax Policy and the Economy, Volume 1, pages 113-138 National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  2. W. G. Gale & J. K. Scholz, . "Intergenerational transfers and the accumulation of wealth," Institute for Research on Poverty Discussion Papers 1019-93, University of Wisconsin Institute for Research on Poverty.
  3. Poterba, James M., 1998. "The rate of return to corporate capital and factor shares: new estimates using revised national income accounts and capital stock data," Carnegie-Rochester Conference Series on Public Policy, Elsevier, vol. 48(1), pages 211-246, June.
  4. O. Attanasio & H. W. Hoynes, . "Differential mortality and wealth accumulation," Institute for Research on Poverty Discussion Papers 1079-96, University of Wisconsin Institute for Research on Poverty.
  5. Masson, A. & Pestieau, P., 1996. "Bequests motives and models of inheritance: a survey of the literature," DELTA Working Papers 96-20, DELTA (Ecole normale supérieure).
  6. Bernheim, B Douglas & Shleifer, Andrei & Summers, Lawrence H, 1986. "The Strategic Bequest Motive," Journal of Labor Economics, University of Chicago Press, vol. 4(3), pages S151-82, July.
  7. Olivia S. Mitchell & James M. Poterba & Mark J. Warshawsky, . "New Evidence on the Money's Worth of Individual Annuities," Pension Research Council Working Papers 97-9, Wharton School Pension Research Council, University of Pennsylvania.
  8. Kathleen McGarry, 1997. "Inter vivos Transfers and Intended Bequests," NBER Working Papers 6345, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  9. Joulfaian, David, 1991. "Charitable Bequests and Estate Taxes," National Tax Journal, National Tax Association, vol. 44(2), pages 169-80, June.
  10. Daniel R. Feenberg & Andrew W. Mitrusi & James M. Poterba, 1997. "Distributional Effects of Adopting a National Retail Sales Tax," NBER Working Papers 5885, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  11. Joseph E. Stiglitz, 1978. "Notes on Estate Taxes, Redistribution, and the Concept of Balanced Growth Path Incidence," NBER Chapters, in: Research in Taxation, pages 137-150 National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  12. Louis Kaplow, 1999. "Transfer Motives and Tax Policy," NBER Working Papers 6340, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  13. Aaron, Henry J. & Munnell, Alicia H., 1992. "Reassessing the Role for Wealth Transfer Taxes," National Tax Journal, National Tax Association, vol. 45(2), pages 119-43, June.
  14. Auten, Gerald & Joulfaian, David, 2001. "Bequest taxes and capital gains realizations," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 81(2), pages 213-229, August.
  15. Martin Feldstein & Lawrence Summers, 1983. "Inflation and the Taxation of Capital Income in the Corporate Sector," NBER Chapters, in: Inflation, Tax Rules, and Capital Formation, pages 116-152 National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
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