This op-ed in the Star Tribune penned by a teacher in Lino Lakes proposed an end to inheritance. In other words, that the government impose a 100% death tax. The basic idea promoted was to allow the government to take all assets in the name of the decedent and redistribute those assets to individuals the government deems worthy or in need. After reading it I thought it may be appropriate to offer some background of inheritance in our culture.
The so called death tax dates back as far as 700 B.C., when decedents in Egypt were subject to a 10% tax on the transfer of property at death. The history of the death tax in the United States reveals that the tax was a vehicle to fund war. The first death tax in the United States was imposed in the Stamp Act of 1797 to pay off war debts. Ironically, the Stamp Act inspired a Revolutionary War, leading to Congress repealing the Stamp Act in 1802. Over the next hundred years the inheritance tax was enacted to cover wars, and then repealed when the war ended or when the war debts were paid. In 1862, Congress passed the Tax Act imposing a federal death tax to finance the Civil War. The need for increased revenues dissipated when the Civil War ended in 1865, and the death tax was subsequently repealed in 1870. Finally, with the passage of the Revenue Act of 1916 (primary purpose was to create the income tax), Congress imposed a death tax that was not directly legislated to fund wars. Although, not even one year later the tax was increased to fund the United States involvement in World War I. Following the end of World War I in 1918, Congress never repealed the death tax and Americans have been paying it ever since. Currently, there is both a federal inheritance tax and a Minnesota inheritance tax.
Before considering proposals such as a 100% death tax from well-meaning citizens, it is important to understand why as a culture we generally value inheritance. Historically, inheritance in Western Civilization has had a direct relation to the family structure. In Western Civilization, property has long been intended for not only the good of the individual but of the family. Therefore, the law has encouraged that the family should be supported from the property of a deceased owner. If a person dies without a will and without declaring heirs, the family always has the first claim on the property, and civil law has always reflected that primary responsibility of the family. It has also been a fixture in the law that a person may make any disposal of his or her property that would have been legitimate when that person was alive. Implied inheritance, therefore, is the natural right to dispose of one’s property not only during life but also after death. That has been the understanding of inheritance in our culture for thousands of years. However, if the President were to follow the advice from the LinoLakes teacher and impose law that all property of the decedent at the time of death shall become the government’s, it would effectively abolish thousands of years of jurisprudence.
Whether you form a position on the issue or not, it is always important to be well informed before reaching a conclusion and advocating for the same. For what would seem like a boring issue, the history of “the death tax” is fascinating as it is woven with the history of wars, tenets of religion, Western Civilization culture, and development of tax laws in the United States.
*This article does not constitute legal advice and is not intended to constitute advertising or solicitation for legal services. Nothing in this article should be construed by you as a source of legal advice. You should not rely or act upon the contents of this article without seeking advice from your own attorney.