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An estate tax increase some Republicans might support

In his State of the Union address, President Obama proposed several tax increases aimed at affluent taxpayers. The President did not suggest one such increase that some Republicans might be persuaded to support: limit the estate tax deduction for bequests to private foundations. In light of the significant economic and political power wielded by the families which control such foundations, it is compelling to limit the estate tax charitable deduction for bequests to such foundations.

As I discuss in a recent paper in the Florida Tax Review, the federal estate tax charitable deduction is unlimited. In contrast, the federal income tax charitable deduction includes detailed limitations which restrict the proportion of an individual taxpayer’s income which may be deducted as a charitable contribution. Through these limits, the income tax charitable deduction implements the ethic that everyone – even taxpayers who devote their entire incomes to charity – should pay some federal income tax.

The federal estate tax should be amended to similarly restrict an estate’s charitable deduction to a percentage of the estate. Then, every estate large enough to trigger federal estate liability would pay some estate tax, even if that estate devolves in its entirety upon charitable recipients.

In the current political environment, this change does not seem feasible. However, it might be possible to garner bi-partisan support for a less sweeping reform, namely, an estate tax charitable deduction limit only applicable to bequests to private foundations.

On the one side are the policy of encouraging charitable bequests to maintain a vibrant charitable sector and the recognition that resources transferred to charity do not directly descend to the decedent’s family. On the other hand, the public fisc has legitimate claims for the services it provided during the decedent’s lifetime. The estate tax is the final accounting for the governmental benefits the decedent received while alive. Most importantly, bequests to a private foundation often, in dynastic fashion, perpetuate substantial economic and political power for the decedent’s family which controls that foundation.

Many private foundations are admirable institutions. I am a fan of the Gates Foundation and of the Buffett family’s charitable efforts. These private foundations appear to be well run, genuinely charitable enterprises.

However, other private foundations are considerably less commendable. Such foundations often serve the thinly-disguised political and economic interests of the families controlling them. Even laudable foundations, like the Gates and Buffett foundations, entail considerable political and financial power for the Gates and Buffett families.

William Gates, Sr., is an attorney and a leader of Responsible Wealth, a coalition of wealthy individuals who favor a federal estate tax. Attorney Gates has written eloquently of the need for federal estate taxation. Few, if any, Republicans will join his call for retaining the federal estate tax.

But some Republicans may be concerned about the realities of private foundations. Looking at these realities, Republicans and Democrats might agree that the estate tax charitable deduction should be limited for bequests to private foundations including the Gates and Buffett families’ foundations.

Image Credit: “Tax.” Photo by Alan Cleaver. CC by 2.0 via Flickr.

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