We all know the well-worn adage that nothing in life is certain except death and taxes. These two certainties existed separately in the U.S. until 101 years ago when estate tax laws were enacted. Since 1916, the unfortunate occasion of death itself has triggered enormous taxes. The rate has fluctuated from its original 10 percent to as high as 77 percent; today hovering at a still-punishing 40 percent. Many often point out that this tax is levied on funds that were already taxed when they were earned, resulting in an overt double taxation of the same money.
Farmers and ranchers have opposed the death tax for so long that no one can remember when the fight began. For decades we have railed against a tax that simply seems immoral – the government claiming ownership of someone’s hard-earned property solely because they were so careless as to cease living. It is based in a worldview wherein society gets to decide how much of your money you should be allowed to keep, as opposed to the more individualistic perspective that assets earned should not be taken away without just cause. To many farmers who have worked their whole lives to pay off farmland, barns, machinery and livestock, passing away does not feel like a sufficient offense to justify forfeiture of 40 percent of all they have earned.
Critics will point to the large exemption amounts in current law to say that the death tax only directly affects a small number of farms and ranches. This misses the point. Simply because an immoral, unjustified tax only affects a small number of people does not grant it moral authority and justification. Even were it to only affect one citizen, it would still be unjust.
These arguments are so familiar that it seems hard to imagine politics without them. However, today the death tax is in the most precarious position of its 101-year lifetime. The comprehensive tax reform bill introduced in Congress on Nov. 2, the “Tax Cuts and Jobs Act,” would gradually reduce the death tax, then completely eliminate it in 2023. The Republican-controlled House will likely pass some version of this bill that either dramatically reduces or completely kills the death tax. With the Senate and White House also in Republican hands, the prospects of killing this tax once and for all are perhaps greater than ever before.
Until it is dead and buried, farmers and ranchers will continue to advocate for the elimination of this tax. Let’s hope that day arrives over the coming weeks and that the death tax does not find a new lease on life.