Inheritance is a civil right and not a natural right. Way back in 1898, the Supreme Court ruled that the right to take property by devise or descent is the creature of the law and not a natural right. The government had the absolute right to decide as to the terms upon which a person should receive a bequest or devise from another. Limitations on inheritance offer equality of opportunity. Taxing inheritance at the source is fairer than taxing income earned as a result of hard work and effort.
Estate tax legislation was first passed in 1916 as a response to the excesses of the Gilded Age. The objective was to shift the tax burden from the Midwestern and Southern states to the rich Northeastern states. The tax burden in those days was mainly in the form of tariff duties and excise taxes. The legislation was recognition that democracy was at risk if too much wealth and power was concentrated in the hands of a few.
One cannot deny the contribution of estate tax to the progressivity of the tax system. The estate tax is the most progressive of any of the federal taxes. The main objective of estate tax is to reduce inequality of wealth and income. It basically applies only to the rich.
Only the super rich stand to benefit from the repealing of estate tax. Without estate tax, billions of dollars in revenue would be lost. The revenue loss over the next decade could be over a trillion dollars. This, at a time of record deficit, could impose an unconscionable burden on future generations. The trade deficit is at a historic high of $61 billion and growing. There are no plans or methods to repay it. This can plunge the U.S. into a drastic economic depression at any time. To make up for this, the government will have to increase taxation or cut Social Security, Medicare, environmental protection and many other government programs which are essential for the overall development of the nation. Any cut or decrease in these programs would be unfair and life-changing to middle class Americans and to the needy, children, elderly, and disabled.
Estate tax also encourages contributions to charity. The present system of estate tax afford the affluent a way of reducing the size of their estates by making contributions to charity. In fact the system operates as an incentive to contribute to charity.
Opponents of the estate tax system harp that it has led to many middle-class Americans losing their estate because of the taxes owed. This has been proved wrong by a study conducted by an organization called United for a Fair Economy. When the exemption increases to $3.5 million in 2009, the share of estates taxed will be about 0.16%. Rest of the estates will pass to the heirs tax free.
Another favorite argument of the critics is that estate tax is a form of double taxation – the estate holder has already paid income taxes and property taxes. Estate tax is not a tax on the estate-holder. It is a tax on the heirs who inherit the estate as an unearned gift.
Repealing of the estate tax will only benefit the rich. Middle class Americans will end up paying more taxes to make up for the revenue deficit.