Twenty-three lawmakers — including, somewhat predictably, Democrat Tom Lantos of California's 12th District — immediately fired off a letter to Bush-appointed IRS commissioner Mark Everson demanding to know if the agency could now effectively investigate estate-tax avoiders.
None but the most obscenely wealthy Americans pay even a dime in taxes when they earn an inheritance upon a death in the family. Estates aren't hit with taxes until they reach a value of $2 million, or $4 million for a married couple. Only estates exceeding those amounts are assessed any tax, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP).
And if the family hires a savvy tax attorney or estate planner, those nontaxable values could easily rise to $10 million, according to Adkisson.
A research director at the Brookings Institution named Diane Lim Rogers opined in the Chronicle last May that because of current exemptions, about one half of one percent of dead people will actually be followed to the grave by the tax man. Besides, it's the beneficiaries of an inheritance who pay. Despite grand claims made by Republicans that the beneficiaries of an estate will be paying half of what they're handed in taxes, even the estates eligible for taxation see on average a 20 percent rate, according to the CBPP, which relied on the IRS for its statistics. For those who do pay estate taxes, deep discounts are available through charitable donations.
"The argument made about lots of people being 'burdened' by estate taxes is that they go through lots of convoluted tax-planning strategies in order to avoid the estate tax, so even if they don't end up paying any estate tax, they are still adversely affected [burdened] by the existence of the tax," Rogers wrote in an e-mail to the Guardian.
But even considering the cost of estate planning, Rogers said, no one would rationally spend more avoiding taxes than they would actually paying them.
Keith Schiller, a respected private sector tax attorney based in Orinda, earns princely sums teaching millionaires how to take advantage of loopholes in the federal tax code. He's not opposed to the estate tax on principle; he just wants to simplify the way his clients pay their dues.
"I do believe the estate tax serves a social function of breaking down generational dynastic wealth," he said in a phone interview.
Schiller said the IRS is conducting nowhere near the estate-tax audits it once did and that may be the only justification for laying off auditors. Still, the knowledge required by agency investigators to analyze and understand complex estate-tax avoidance schemes is immense. About 50 estate- and gift-tax attorneys based in Southern California and the Bay Area exclusively handle returns filed for the IRS from inside the state.
David Dean, president of the San Jose–based National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU) Local 238, said it's not clear which offices will have layoffs. All 350 estate-tax auditors are being offered buyout deals that include their pensions plus up to $25,000, or $13,000 after taxes.
Dean and the NTEU, which represents the auditors and opposes the layoffs, insist the IRS isn't entirely sure how much money is hidden from the agency each year through either elaborate trusts or simple refusals to file. It's known as the "tax gap," and three days after Johnston's story appeared, the inspector general of the IRS, J. Russell George, told Congress that the agency's estimated figures for delinquent estate taxes hadn't been updated in years.