The Issues: Estate Tax

032102, story, IRS Tax taxes, JM

CBS News continues an election-year series titled "What Does It Mean To You?" focused on where the presidential candidates stand on major issues and how a vote for one or the other candidate might affect average people's lives.

In this report, CBS News Correspondent Lee Cowan compares the Bush and Kerry positions on the estate tax.

Even at age 75, there's one thing farmers like Joe Lyon don't talk about: death. Whether it's crops, cattle or themselves, around here that's bad luck.

"We're all optimists and think we'll never die, so we keep putting that off," says Lyon.

But that's hard to do when both sides in this political campaign keep talking about the death tax, money Uncle Sam can skim off the family farm or a small business after you're no longer part of the tax base – at least the living part.

Opponents call that unethical. Even though the estate tax brought in $23 billion last year, it was money gained, critics say, by taking it from those who simply lived the American dream.

"It's an immoral tax because on the one hand we say, 'Work hard, save your money.' On the other hand we say we'll take it away," says the Heritage Foundation's William Beach.

President Bush insists the impact of the tax will eventually hit people like Joe Lyon the hardest, forcing them to sell their land or livestock in order to pay the bill.

"The death tax is bad for rural America and Congress needs to make it extinct forever," the president said in an April appearance in Iowa.

It's being billed as tax relief for family farmers. Problem is, family farmers aren't the ones paying this tax. In fact, in 2002, less than 4 percent of the people who died owed any estate tax at all, and only a tiny fraction of those were farmers. The overwhelming majority was paid by the wealthiest people in the country.

"I have never seen a farm business that had to be sold in order to pay federal estate tax," says Neil Harl of Iowa State University.

Why, then, is that argument used so often?

"It spins well," says Harl.

Indeed it does. But John Kerry has spun it too, the other way, arguing that the president's plan to get rid of the estate tax is simply a break for the rich.

"When tax cuts for the wealthiest are your only priority, you don't have anything left for middle-class Americans," Kerry said in California in August.

Kerry would keep the estate tax, but raise the exemptions high enough so that only the rich would pay.

But critics charge that too is problematic: those with the means will likely shelter most of their wealth, and in the end, get out of paying anyway.

"The folks you're most interested in taxing are going to work around it. It's the worst of all worlds," says former IRS commissioner Fred Goldberg.

Which makes the death tax a difficult campaign issue, especially for people like Joe Lyon.

"I just happen to think they're wrong," Lyons says. "I don't think it's that big a deal. I've got other things that concern me more."

Like the cost of prescription drugs and long-term health care – bigger threats to the family farm, he says, than the grim reaper with a tax bill.