In part, that tiny fraction reflects the current recession’s devastation of assets—the Fed estimates that the total value of household and nonprofit assets fell by about one-sixth between 2007 and the first quarter of 2009. But changes in estate tax rules over the past decade have played a much larger role than economic swings.
The Economic Growth Tax Relief and Reconciliation Act of 2001 (EGTRRA), best known as the Bush tax cuts, phases the estate tax out over a decade. The act raised the effective exemption incrementally from $675,000 in 2001 to $3.5 million in 2009 and dropped the top tax rate from 55 percent to 45 percent. The levy disappears entirely in 2010, only to return in 2011 under pre-EGTRRA law—a $1-million exemption and 55-percent top rate. The Obama administration has proposed making the 2009 parameters permanent and indexing them for inflation. Others would set a higher exemption and a lower tax rate.
So what’s happened?
For decades before 1976, only estates worth $60,000 or more owed estate tax. That threshold remained constant in nominal terms, so more and more estates had to pay the tax as economic growth and inflation boosted household wealth. In 1943, just under 1 percent of deaths led to estate tax payments; by 1976, that share had grown to 7.65 percent (see graph).