A Brief History of Estate Taxes
Frank L. Washelesky
Federal estate taxes have been a source of funding for the federal government almost since the U.S. was founded.
Tip: Regardless of your net worth, it is critical to understand your choices when developing an estate strategy.
In 1797, Congress instituted a system of federal stamps that were required on all wills offered for probate when property (land, homes) was transferred from one generation to the next. The revenue from these stamps was used to build the Navy for an undeclared war with France, which had begun in 1794. When the crisis ended in 1802, the tax was repealed.¹
Estate taxes returned in the build up to the Civil War. The Revenue Act of 1862 included an inheritance tax, which applied to transfers of personal assets. In 1864, Congress amended the Revenue Act, added a tax on transfers of real estate and increased the rates for inheritance taxes. As before, once the war ended the Act was repealed.²
Fast Fact: Estate Income. Between 2016 and 2025, the estate tax will generate about $246 billion.
(Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 2015)
In 1898, a federal legacy tax was proposed to raise revenue for the Spanish-American War. This served as a precursor to modern estate taxes. It instituted tax rates that were graduated by the size of the estate. The end of the war came in 1902, and the legacy tax was repealed later that same year.³
However, in 1913, the 16th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, giving Congress the right to “lay and collect taxes on incomes, from whatever source derived.” The Revenue Act of 1916 established an estate tax, which, in one way or another, has been part of U.S. history since.
In 2010, the estate tax expired — briefly. In December 2010, Congress passed the Tax Relief Act of 2010 and the new law retroactively imposed tax legislation on all estates settled in 2010.
In 2012, the American Tax Relief Act made the estate tax a permanent part of the tax code.
As part of the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, estate tax rules were again adjusted. The estate tax exemption was raised to $11.2 million, a doubling of the $5.6 million that previously existed. Married couples may be able to pass as much as $22.4 million to their heirs.
The 2017 Act is set to expire in 2025, so it is possible the estate tax law may be adjusted at least once during the next few years. If you are uncertain about your estate strategy, it may be a good time to review the approach you currently have in place.
Estate taxes typically account for less than one percent of total federal revenue.
Chart Source: Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 2015
Federal estate taxes exempt a share of estates from federal estate taxes. For the 2017 tax year, if an estate is worth less than $5.49 million, no federal estate taxes may apply.
|Year||Exclusion Amount||Highest Tax Rate|
|2010||$0 or $5,000,000||0% or 35%|
Chart Source: Internal Revenue Service, 201
1,2,3. Internal Revenue Service, 2016
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