Estate-tax Repeal, Facing Veto, Is Based On Shades Of Green The Tax Is Seen As Unfair To Entrepreneurs And Farmers. Some Say That Isn't So, And Warn That Congress' Bill Will Help The Richest Most.

Posted: July 16, 2000

WASHINGTON — Joe Olivo, who helps run a family-owned printing shop in Cherry Hill, backs the campaign in Congress to repeal the estate tax. Every year, he pays $12,000 for life insurance and financial advice so that he and his two brothers will not have to sell the $3.5 million business to pay the federal estate tax when they inherit it from their 56-year-old mother, Ann Olivo.

He, like many Congress members, thinks that the estate tax is an unreasonable burden on entrepreneurs and farmers who want to pass their businesses on to their children.

Congress last week sent to President Clinton a bill that would eliminate the tax. The Senate voted 59-39 for the bill, which already had won House approval. But Democrats say the benefits are tilted toward the rich, and Clinton has threatened to veto it. The Senate vote was short of the two-thirds needed to override a veto.

To portray the tax solely as a burden on prosperous folks such as Olivo, though, is misleading.

Only a small proportion of those who pay estate taxes are farmers or family-business owners. And the tax is a burden that can be managed, as Olivo is doing, by setting aside some money each year, financial advisers say.

Not everyone manages it, of course. In a favorite story told by estate planners to prospective customers, the heirs of Joe Robbie, Miami Dolphins owner, could not afford the estate taxes when he died unexpectedly in 1994, and they were forced to sell the team.

The vast majority of estates accumulate wealth through more traditional means, such as profitable careers, savings, and investments in stocks and real estate.

President Clinton opposes repealing the tax. Instead, he and some Democratic allies in Congress propose raising the exemption for farmers and small-family businesses to $2 million, or $4 million for a couple. Such an approach would provide targeted relief to that group while keeping the tax in place for others.

Supporters of the estate tax argue that it helps redistribute wealth from the rich to the poor. They point out that only 2 percent of Americans who die each year have estates large enough to be taxed.

Few, though, are in the same boat as Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates, whose net worth was estimated by Forbes at $60 billion in May even after a tumble in his company's stock price.

Of 47,482 estates taxed in 1998, nearly 40,000 were valued at less than $2.5 million, and 20,000 were at less than $1 million, according to the Treasury Department. The number of estates topping $10 million was 1,062.

Smaller estates pay a relatively small tax. The average bill for estates up to $1 million was $45,810.

Estates are taxable on any amount above $675,000. With relatively simple estate planning, a married couple can, in effect, double that exemption, to $1.35 million. The tax rate ranges from 37 percent to 55 percent.

Those exemption limits are low enough to affect Ida Prichard, a 78-year-old retired elementary school teacher in Seattle whose only similarity to Gates is that she owns some Microsoft stock.

Frugal throughout her life - she started a bank account at age 10 when she earned 25 cents a can selling wild blackberries - she has built up a taxable estate through savings and investing in a handful of stocks.

Her accountant has told her that the estate will be reduced by what she considers a "large amount" in taxes.

"I feel it's very unjust," she said. "Why does a person have to work and work, save and save, do without diamonds and trips to Las Vegas, and then pay? The biggest punishment in America is for being a hard worker and thrifty."

For the owners of family businesses and farms, the estate tax presents an additional challenge.

Prichard's heirs may be able to sell her home or some stocks to pay the estate tax and divvy up the rest. But a farm or a business may not be able to sell land or other assets without breaking up the business.

Many business owners take out life insurance to help pay the bill when it comes due. They and farmers also work with estate planners to find ways to reduce their tax.

In 1997, Kansas City Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt transferred 80 percent of the team to his children. While he had to pay a gift tax at the same rate as estate tax, it was paid on the 1997 value of the football team, estimated at $188 million by Financial World magazine.

Given the soaring value of sports franchises, that presumably will be much less than it is when Hunt, 67, dies.

"Estate planning is a major issue in sports," said Mark Ganis, president of Sportscorp, a sports investment bank in Chicago.

Opponents of repealing the tax note that the vast majority of estates subject to it are not family businesses or farms.

"Most farms are comfortably under any level that would require them to pay federal estate tax," said Neil Harl, an economics professor at Iowa State University who gives estate-planning seminars to farmers.

Ken Moritsugu's e-mail address is kmoritsugu

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