Farm and Food File Alan Guebert

Farm and Food File by Alan Guebert

Most Americans know there are three, unalterable facts of life: death, taxes and farmers howling about “death taxes.”

And just between you and me, there’s an-oft whispered, rarely acknowledged fourth fact of life: Nearly every farm leader knows there’s no such thing as a “death tax” — federal taxes due upon death — for 99% of all farmers.

That’s not an opinion; it is a provable fact. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service (USDA, ERS) again confirmed it in a 23-page analysis of the American Family Plan, the pending White House tax proposal, in September.

The analysis, wrote ERS, “suggest(s) that of the estimated 32,174 family farm estates in 2021, 1.1% would owe capital gains at death, 18.2% would not owe capital gains taxes at death but could have deferred liability if the farm assets do not remain family-owned and 80.7% would have no change to their capital gains tax liability.”

In one way, the farm leaders were right. The number of estimated farm estates to be taxed under the Biden plan is higher than the number under current tax law. That number, according to a March 2021 ERS report, is incredibly tiny.

“For 2020, ERS forecasted 31,394 farm estates would be created from principal operator households and out of those, 0.6% — or 189 estates — would be required to file an estate tax return and only 0.16% of the 31,394 farm estates will have an estate tax liability.”

That means 50 — as in 5-0 or one per U.S. state — “farm estates have an estate tax liability.” Under the proposed changes, that average rises to seven per state.

As the numbers make clear, neither today’s tax laws nor the proposed American Family Plan creates a “death tax” crisis in any state or the nation. In fact, hardly any American — including American farmers — pay taxes after “death.”

And “hardly” means hardly.

According to 2020 estimates compiled by the non-profit, non-partisan Tax Policy Center, “About 4,100 estate tax returns will be filed for people who die in 2020, of which only about 1,900 will be taxable — less than 0.1% of the 2.8 million people expected to die in that year. Because of a series of increases in the estate tax exemption, few estates pay the tax.”

So it’s not just farmers not paying “death taxes,” 99.9% of all Americans who die don’t pay a penny to undertaker Uncle Sam. That means “death taxes” apply to only the 1,900 Americans either so rich upon death they can’t avoid some taxes or the few who die without a plan to avoid taxes.

The facts, however, never get in the way of politicians preaching the horrors of phantom death taxes destroying the American family farm. A month before the Biden tax plan became public this spring, South Dakota Sen. John Thune argued that even “One family or business lost to the death tax is one too many.”

And Thune, the U.S. Senate’s second most powerful Republican, wasn’t alone. There was a bipartisan race to the microphones by virtually every House and Senate member to denounce death taxes on family farms despite clear evidence that virtually no family farm pays any estate taxes.

No mind, on Sept. 13, “The House Ways and Means Committee… released a section-by-section fact sheet on the tax provisions in the [Biden tax] bill to be considered by the committee… that did not include any references to changes in stepped-up basis for estate taxes,” noted the Hagstrom Report.

So, glory hallelujah, Congress has once again protected every “family farmer” from onerous “death taxes” that only 50 farm estates now pay.

Now, hopefully, they’ll tackle other critical issues like whether the Brooklyn Bridge is actually in Brooklyn.

Alan Guebert is an award — winning agricultural journalist and expert who was raised on an 720 — acre, 100 — cow southern Illinois dairy farm. He can be reached at agcomm@farmandfoodfile.com.

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