By dying in 2010, the billionaire and long-time New York Yankees owner's wealth avoids the federal estate tax, likely saving his heirs enough money to field an entire team of Alex Rodriguezes.
Steinbrenner's death Tuesday came during an unplanned year-long gap in the estate tax, the first since it was enacted in 1916. Political wrangling has stalemated efforts in Congress to replace the tax that expired in 2009.
That deprives the government of billions of dollars in annual revenue but represents an unexpected bonanza for those who inherit wealth.
"If you're super-wealthy, it's a good year to die," said Jack Nuckolls, an attorney and estate planner with the accounting firm BDO Seidman. "It really is."
The death of the 80-year-old Steinbrenner, who had been in poor health for years, highlights a quirky tax situation that has drawn much scrutiny among the moneyed but little on Main Street. Only those with estates valued at more than $3.5 million had to pay under the old law.
George Steinbrenner on 60 Minutes in 1987
George Steinbrenner: A Look at His Life
Ray Ratto: Imitators Couldn't Match The Boss
Mike Freeman: Steinbrenner Was The King of NYC
Without knowing the exact details of Steinbrenner's holdings and estate plan, it's impossible to say how much money will be saved. But estate planners and tax experts say it's likely that the estate benefited hugely by the timing of his death.
A glance at some numbers suggests roughly how it may work.
Forbes magazine has estimated Steinbrenner's estate at $1.1 billion. The federal estate tax in 2009 was 45 percent, with the $3.5 million per-person exemption. If he had died last year, his estate could thus have faced federal taxes of almost $500 million, depending on how the estate was structured.
That doesn't mean his heirs permanently escape all taxes related to his assets. They will still have to ultimately pay a capital gains tax if and when assets are sold. And due to a change in tax law this year, the tax would be applied to the amount by which the assets have appreciated since Steinbrenner acquired them.
Even if the Steinbrenners sold the assets right away, the top capital gains tax rate is 15 percent. Worst-case scenario, depending on how much the assets appreciated after Steinbrenner acquired them: a $165 million tax bill.
That's a tax break of about $328 million. A-Rod's 2010 salary: $32 million.
The Steinbrenner family has not suggested any sale is planned.
"There are no succession issues, and the team will not be sold," Yankees president Randy Levine said.
The Steinbrenners therefore are expected to avoid what happened to the family of Chicago Cubs owner P.K. Wrigley after he died in 1977. The family was forced to sell the Cubs to the Tribune Co. four years later to pay the taxes on Wrigley's estate.
As Steinbrenner's Yankees transformed into Yankee Global Enterprises, which includes the cable TV operation YES Network and Legends Hospitality, estate planning issues for a transfer to his children were dealt with, according to a Yankees official who spoke on condition of anonymity because those details weren't released
Estate taxes can be reduced through certain planning measures - such as gifts and asset sales to family members at discounted values. However, except for the unusual circumstances of 2010, they cannot be eliminated unless you give it all to charity.
Some wealthy families use trusts to lower estate taxes. But even transferring assets to family trusts wouldn't have significantly lessened Steinbrenner's federal tax liability unless he gave vast amounts of assets to relatives as gifts before he died. Those would have been subject to a large gift tax.
That's unlikely since very few people choose to pay a large tax anount sooner than necessary, according to Richard Behrendt, senior estate planner for Baird Financial Advisors in Milwaukee and a former estate tax attorney for the Internal Revenue Service.
The estate tax is scheduled to return in 2011, with a top rate of 55 percent. The House passed a bill last year that would have extended the estate tax at the 2009 rates, but it stalled in the Senate. Many Republicans want to eliminate the federal estate tax altogether, while many Democrats want to extend it at the 2009 rates.
There had been talk on Capitol Hill of reinstating it retroactively, to the start of the year. But as the year progresses, lawmakers say that is increasingly unlikely.
"If Congress doesn't go retroactive, then he picked a great year to die," said Robert Steele, who heads of the trusts and estates department at the law firm of Wolf Haldenstein Adler Freeman & Herz in New York. "There will be possibly tremendous capital gains tax, but the capital gains rate is a lot lower than the estate tax rate would have been."