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How Important Are Perpetual Tax Savings?


  • James R. Hines Jr.


Federal estate taxes give very wealthy families incentives to transfer resources directly to distant generations in order to avoid taxes on successive rounds of transfers. Until recently such transfers were impeded by the rule against perpetuities, which prevented transfers to most potential not-yet-born beneficiaries. Many American states have recently repealed the rule against perpetuities, raising concerns that the combination of tax incentives and new legal rights encourages the devotion of vast wealth to perpetual trusts designed to benefit distant generations, avoid taxes, and maintain a degree of control over the financial affairs of descendants in perpetuity. This paper analyzes the incentives created by federal transfer taxes, finding the tax benefits from establishing perpetual trusts to be quite modest, in representative cases ranging from 9-25 percent of just one component of the cost. Contrary to popular claims, tax benefits decline as investment returns rise. While U.S. states that have repealed the rule against perpetuities and adopted other policies to encourage trusts host substantial trust assets, evidence from tax returns suggests that perpetual trusts are unlikely to account for a significant portion of this business. Consequently, tax incentives may not be responsible for an important shift of assets into perpetual trusts.

Suggested Citation

  • James R. Hines Jr., 2012. "How Important Are Perpetual Tax Savings?," NBER Working Papers 18553, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  • Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:18553
    Note: PE

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Bernheim, B. Douglas & Lemke, Robert J. & Scholz, John Karl, 2004. "Do estate and gift taxes affect the timing of private transfers?," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 88(12), pages 2617-2634, December.
    2. Wojciech Kopczuk, 2007. "Bequest and Tax Planning: Evidence from Estate Tax Returns," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Oxford University Press, vol. 122(4), pages 1801-1854.
    3. McGarry, Kathleen, 2001. "The cost of equality: unequal bequests and tax avoidance," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 79(1), pages 179-204, January.
    4. Joulfaian, David, 2005. "Choosing between gifts and bequests: How taxes affect the timing of wealth transfers," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 89(11-12), pages 2069-2091, December.
    5. Nordblom, Katarina & Ohlsson, Henry, 2006. "Tax avoidance and intra-family transfers," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 90(8-9), pages 1669-1680, September.
    6. Page, Benjamin R., 2003. "Bequest taxes, inter vivos gifts, and the bequest motive," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 87(5-6), pages 1219-1229, May.
    7. McGarry, Kathleen, 1999. "Inter vivos transfers and intended bequests," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 73(3), pages 321-351, September.
    8. Joulfaian, David & McGarry, Kathleen, 2004. "Estate and Gift Tax Incentives and Inter Vivos Giving," National Tax Journal, National Tax Association, vol. 57(2), pages 429-444, June.
    9. Poterba, James, 2001. "Estate and gift taxes and incentives for inter vivos giving in the US," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 79(1), pages 237-264, January.
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    JEL classification:

    • H24 - Public Economics - - Taxation, Subsidies, and Revenue - - - Personal Income and Other Nonbusiness Taxes and Subsidies
    • K11 - Law and Economics - - Basic Areas of Law - - - Property Law
    • K34 - Law and Economics - - Other Substantive Areas of Law - - - Tax Law

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