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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Trump’s Estate Tax Spin

President Donald Trump says the new tax law “for the most part … wiped out” the estate tax. But while fewer people would have to pay it, revenue from estate taxes is expected to be cut by only a third over the next eight years. And then the changes would expire.

Trump’s misleading comment about the estate tax came during remarks at the White House as Republican lawmakers celebrated passage of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, which he signed on Dec. 22.

Trump, Dec. 20: One thing, very important for the farmers — the great farmers and the great small business owners that were forced to sell their businesses at bargain-basement numbers: We have provided, for the most part, estate taxes wiped out so they can keep their farms in the family. And that, to me, is a very big factor — very big.

As we have written before, the estate tax affects very few farms or small businesses. A study published last year, and updated in March, by the Economic Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated that 38,328 farms would become part of estates in 2016. Of those, only 0.42 percent — 161 estates — would owe any estate tax at all.

Separate research by the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center puts the number even lower. TPC estimates that only 50 farms and closely held businesses will pay any estate tax in 2017.

But here, we are focusing on Trump’s claim that the estate tax was “for the most part … wiped out.”

Under previous law, any assets from estates valued at more than $5.49 million (nearly $11 million for couples) will be subject to the estate tax in the 2017 tax year, according to the IRS.  The new law doubles the estate tax exemption to $11.2 million ($22.4 million for couples). That provision expires at the end of 2025.

An analysis by the Tax Policy Center of the estate tax changes proposed in the Senate version of the bill — which ultimately were adopted in the final bill that became law — shows that while the number of people who would have to pay an estate tax would drop from 5,500 to 1,700 in 2018, the tax revenues from the estate tax would drop by only about a third, from $20.4 billion to $13.6 billion. That pattern remains — with estate tax revenue about a third lower than it would be under current law — over the next eight years, until the provision sunsets.

“Most estate tax is paid by extremely wealthy people, so even doubling the exemption leaves most of it in place,” Eric Toder, co-director of the Tax Policy Center, told us in an email.

It does, however, eliminate estate tax liability for people with estate assets between about $5.6 million and $11.2 million (or double for couples).

As we noted earlier, the doubling of the estate tax exemption level expires at the end of 2025. So, unless a future Congress extends it, the estate tax would revert to the previous level — and would actually be slightly higher because of the substitution of the chained CPI for the current Consumer Price Index formula, Toder said.

In other words, the changes to the estate tax are  — as written — temporary. And even in the years when the exemption level has been doubled, the estate taxes paid are expected to drop by about a third third (even as the number of people who will have to pay it is cut by nearly 70 percent). That’s not “wiped out.”

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2017-12-22 18:02:10 UTC

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“We have provided, for the most part, estate taxes wiped.”
Donald Trump
President of the United States

White House
Wednesday, December 20, 2017