- Over the past year, this column has addressed two major public
policy issues that may seem, at first, to have little to do with
one another. One issue—the estate tax (covered in September
2006)—is the on-again, off-again tax imposed on the estates
of high-net-worth taxpayers after death. The other—Social
Security (covered in February 2007)—is the rapidly depleting
trust fund originally intended to spare hard-working Americans
from living out their golden years in poverty. Both the estate
tax and Social Security are “tax issues” to be sure,
but they are not often connected in minds or debate.
The Estate Tax and Social Security
do, however, have similarities. Both were once hot topics in Washington,
D.C., but have since fallen from the national spotlight. And—despite
this recent lack of attention—both present challenges that
will continue to worsen unless something is done soon.
tax policy, for example, is in desperate need of consistency.
Since the Economic Growth and Tax Relief Reconciliation Act was
passed in 2001, a divisive, politically charged debate has placed
the status of the tax in constant doubt. The federal government
never tires of tinkering with it—or at least talking about
tinkering with it, which in fact seems to be the norm, not the
exception. As it now stands, estates worth $2 million or less
are excluded from the tax, but in 2009 this exclusion will increase
to $3.5 million. Moreover, estate tax rates will decrease from
a top rate of 46% this year to 45% next year through 2009. In
2010, the estate tax will be repealed in its entirety, but—in
a bizarre twist—in 2011 the tax will return, to pre-2001
levels (an exclusion of $1 million and a top rate of 55%).
on the other hand, is consistent in its desperate need of funds.
According to the best estimates of the Congressional Budget Office’s
Social Security trustees in 2005, the Social Security trust fund
balance will peak in the year 2017. Subsequently, assuming no
policy changes, this trust fund will steadily decline until it
is fully depleted in 2041. Once the Social Security trust fund’s
assets are depleted, other tax revenues will be needed to keep
benefits at currently scheduled levels; Social Security taxes
will be able to fund only about three-quarters of its benefit
a Little, Take a Little
is another connection to be made between the estate tax and Social
Security. What if the two policies could, in essence, be addressed
with a single remedy?
say Congress were to firm up the estate tax by choosing one rate
and one exemption, and index both of them for inflation. Estate
tax monies—which are, after all, taxes to be used for the
public good—would then be directed to one of our most important
(and needy) public goods: Social Security. The estate tax would
get a much-needed measure of consistency, and Social Security
would get a necessary infusion of funds.
to a 2005 report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities
(a nonpartisan organization working at the federal and state levels
on fiscal policy and public programs that affect low- and moderate-income
families and individuals), “The Chief Actuary of the Social
Security Administration has estimated that maintaining the estate
tax at the 2009 levels—with a $3.5 million exemption and
a 45 percent top rate—would raise enough revenue to cover
more than one-quarter of the shortfall in the Social Security
Trust Fund over the next 75 years, as measured by the Social Security
Trustees. The trustees estimate the shortfall to be 0.65 percent
of GDP, while the revenue raised by this reform would equal 0.2
percent of GDP. The Congressional Budget Office projects a smaller
shortfall (0.36 percent of GDP). Under CBO assumptions, the estate
tax revenues collected under this reform would close about half
of the 75-year shortfall.”
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Publisher, The CPA Journal
Executive Director, NYSSCPA