At the stroke of midnight tonight, the estate tax will expire. While the House of Representatives passed a stop-gap measure in early December extending the current 45% rate and $3.5 exemption to 2010, Senate Republicans and Democrats have been unable to agree on a temporary "fix" keeping the tax in place. As a result, there will be no tax on estates of those dying during 2010. Now, Congress can presumably act to reinstate the tax retroactively in 2010, but such action is certainly not guaranteed, and will undoubtedly result in litigation for families of those who die with taxable estates in the interim.
Without an estate tax in 2010, a very wealthy families will have reason to celebrate, but taxpayers of more modest means will pay capital gains on inherited assets, because along with the elimination of the estate tax the unlimited step-up in basis was also eliminated for estates larger than $1.2 million. This means that estate executors will face additional and confusing administrative burdens. A retroactive change in the law in 2010 will result in extensive litigation.
While on the surface, this would appear to be good news for wealthy families, the celebration will be short-lived even if congress does not act to restore the tax, because the estate tax will be restored in
2011 at a rate of 55 percent on estates of $1 million or more beginning January 1, 2011. This means that tens of thousands of families will owe estate tax in 2011 and beyond, who would have owed no tax had they died in 2009 or 2010.
Sen. Baucus has pledged to try to restore the estate tax retroactively in 2010. This would undo the capital gains increase, but it could also create fertile ground for lawsuits by those whose family members die between January 1, 2010, and the date when any retroactive law is enacted.