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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.

Suggested Citation

  • James Poterba, 1997. "The Estate Tax and After-Tax Investment Returns," NBER Working Papers 6337, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  • Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:6337
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    References listed on IDEAS

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    Cited by:

    1. Kopczuk, Wojciech & Saez, Emmanuel, 2004. "Top Wealth Shares in the United States, 1916-2000: Evidence From Estate Tax Returns," National Tax Journal, National Tax Association;National Tax Journal, vol. 57(2), pages 445-487, June.
    2. Stefan Hochguertel & Henry Ohlsson, 2009. "Compensatory inter vivos gifts," Journal of Applied Econometrics, John Wiley & Sons, Ltd., vol. 24(6), pages 993-1023.
    3. Andrés Erosa & Tatyana Koreshkova & Diego Restuccia, 2010. "How Important Is Human Capital? A Quantitative Theory Assessment of World Income Inequality," Review of Economic Studies, Oxford University Press, vol. 77(4), pages 1421-1449.
    4. James M. Poterba & Scott J. Weisbenner, 2003. "Inter-asset Differences in Effective Estate-Tax Burdens," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 93(2), pages 360-365, May.
    5. 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.
    6. Laitner, John & Ohlsson, Henry, 2001. "Bequest motives: a comparison of Sweden and the United States," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 79(1), pages 205-236, January.
    7. Andres Erosa & Tatyana Koreshkova & Diego Restuccia, 2006. "On the aggregate and distributional implications of productivity differences across countries," Working Paper 06-02, Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond.
    8. Douglas Holtz-Eakin & John W. R. Phillips & Harvey S. Rosen, 2001. "Estate Taxes, Life Insurance, And Small Business," The Review of Economics and Statistics, MIT Press, vol. 83(1), pages 52-63, February.
    9. McGarry, Kathleen, 2001. "The cost of equality: unequal bequests and tax avoidance," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 79(1), pages 179-204, January.
    10. R Alessie & A Kapteyn, 2001. "New data for understanding saving," Oxford Review of Economic Policy, Oxford University Press, vol. 17(1), pages 55-69, Spring.
    11. Jeffrey R. Brown & Scott J. Weisbenner, 2002. "Is a Bird in Hand Worth More than a Bird in the Bush? Intergenerational Transfers and Savings Behavior," NBER Working Papers 8753, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    12. McGarry, Kathleen, 1999. "Inter vivos transfers and intended bequests," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 73(3), pages 321-351, September.
    13. James M. Poterba & Scott Weisbenner, 2000. "The Distributional Burden of Taxing Estates and Unrealized Capital Gains at the Time of Death," NBER Working Papers 7811, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    14. Joel Slemrod & Wojciech Kopczuk, 2000. "The Impact of the Estate Tax on the Wealth Accumulation and Avoidance Behavior of Donors," NBER Working Papers 7960, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    15. Joulfaian, David, 2004. "Gift taxes and lifetime transfers: time series evidence," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 88(9-10), pages 1917-1929, August.
    16. Thomas Piketty & Emmanuel Saez, 2001. "Income Inequality in the United States, 1913-1998 (series updated to 2000 available)," NBER Working Papers 8467, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    17. Douglas Holtz-Eakin & Donald Marples, 2001. "Distortion Costs of Taxing Wealth Accumulation: Income Versus Estate Taxes," NBER Working Papers 8261, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    18. Karen Pence & John Sabelhaus, 1999. "Household Saving in the '90s: Evidence from Cross-Section Wealth Surveys: Technical Paper 1999-3," Working Papers 13345, Congressional Budget Office.

    More about this item

    JEL classification:

    • H24 - Public Economics - - Taxation, Subsidies, and Revenue - - - Personal Income and Other Nonbusiness Taxes and Subsidies
    • J14 - Labor and Demographic Economics - - Demographic Economics - - - Economics of the Elderly; Economics of the Handicapped; Non-Labor Market Discrimination

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