In an odd twist of legislative history, the U.S. estate tax is scheduled to expire on January 1, but for one year only. This article describes people responding those peculiar incentives.
Rich Cling to Life to Beat Tax Man
Nothing's certain except death and taxes -- but a temporary lapse in the estate tax is causing a few wealthy Americans to try to bend those rules.
Starting Jan. 1, the estate tax -- which can erase nearly half of a wealthy person's estate -- goes away for a year. For families facing end-of-life decisions in the immediate future, the change is making one of life's most trying episodes only more complex.
"I have two clients on life support, and the families are struggling with whether to continue heroic measures for a few more days," says Joshua Rubenstein, a lawyer with Katten Muchin Rosenman LLP in New York. "Do they want to live for the rest of their lives having made serious medical decisions based on estate-tax law?"
Currently, the tax applies to about 5,500 taxpayers a year. So, on average, at least 15 people die every day whose estates would benefit from the tax's lapse.
The macabre situation stems from 2001, when Congress raised estate-tax exemptions, culminating with the tax's disappearance next year. However, due to budget constraints, lawmakers didn't make the change permanent. So the estate tax is due to come back to life in 2011 -- at a higher rate and lower exemption.
To make it easier on their heirs, some clients are putting provisions into their health-care proxies allowing whoever makes end-of-life medical decisions to consider changes in estate-tax law. "We have done this at least a dozen times, and have gotten more calls recently," says Andrew Katzenstein, a lawyer with Proskauer Rose LLP in Los Angeles.
Of course, plenty of taxpayers themselves are eager to live to see the new year. One wealthy, terminally ill real-estate entrepreneur has told his doctors he is determined to live until the law changes.
"Whenever he wakes up," says his lawyer, "He says: 'What day is it? Is it Jan. 1 yet?'"...
The situation is causing at least one person to add the prospect of euthanasia to his estate-planning mix, according to Mr. Katzenstein of Proskauer Rose. An elderly, infirm client of his recently asked whether undergoing euthanasia next year in Holland, where it's legal, might allow his estate to dodge the tax.
His answer: Yes.