Congress Does Unthinkable by NOT Addressing Estate Tax

Who wants to ring in the New Year with uncertainty? Well, that’s what Congress did by not getting around to extending the estate tax before December 31, 2009. Many experts believed this would NEVER happen. I discussed this in several past blog entries in September and December of last year.

congress4Flashback to 2001: At that time, a largely Republican coalition in Congress tried to repeal the estate tax completely, but they were unable to get past a filibuster. So, instead, the changes were put into the tax code when then-President George W. Bush signed a bill that was designed to phase out the estate tax so that by January 1, 2010, the estate tax would no longer exist. However, since this was done through the tax code, Congress would have to revisit the changes within ten years, or the estate tax would come back into effect on January 1, 2011, at a higher rate. Generally all experts in the field believed that Congress would act and not allow the estate tax to disappear completely in 2010. But, Congress was so busy debating health care reform this fall that we have entered 2010, and the estate tax is temporarily gone.

So what will happen now? As of right now, if someone dies in 2010, his or her heirs will not owe any taxes on the estate. Sounds pretty good right? Well don’t go “pulling the plug” on Great Uncle Henry just yet. One also has to consider changes to the capital gains tax. Attorney Deirdre Wheatly-Liss wrote a fantastic blog on this topic.  If that same person dies after December 31, 2010, however, with an estate of 1 million dollars or larger, those same heirs will pay a 55% tax. This means that in 2011, a one million dollar estate will be reduced to $450,000, after taxes are paid. Considerinig your life insurance policies are countable in your overall estate, many more middle-class americans will be subject to estate taxes in 2011 if Congress continues to fail to act.

This uncertainty continues when Congress resumes session this year because our representatives may decide to draft a retroactive law reinstating an estate tax that would extend back to January 1, of this year! (Don’t go spending that windfall inheritance quite yet). No one knows howlong it will take Congress to act or what Congress will do. If Congress does act, then the question will be whether a retroactive law would be upheld in court. Unfortunately, it could be a long time, filled with much speculation, before Congress acts and whether that action is deemed constitutional.

While this uncertainty may exist for quite a while, some steps can be taken to protect your family. Please check in with your elder law attorney to learn about potential planning opportunities and to stay up to date on what Congress is doing with regard to the estate tax.

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