An inheritance tax is a tax on funds or assets that an individual receives from someone else when the latter dies. Most European countries levy their taxes on bequests from deceased individuals using this type of tax. This is not the only way that a government can tax transfers made from one generation to the next, however. The United States has an estate tax, meaning that the tax assessed by the government is levied on the entire estate before the estate is subdivided among heirs. The difference is more than semantic. Most countries have marginal tax rates that rise as individual income and wealth rise. With an estate tax, a $50,000 estate left to ten heirs will be taxed at the rate that applies for sums of $50,000. With an inheritance tax, each of the ten individuals receiving a share of the estate would be taxed on the $5,000 that they receive. If their marginal tax rate is low, their after-tax proceeds could be much higher than their share of a $50,000 estate that was taxed at a high rate.
In most European and North American societies, policies toward taxing transfers that elders leave their offspring at death have their roots in a pre-industrial, agricultural form of social and economic organization, where land represented the primary form in which wealth was held and social convention dictated that it was important to make sure that a family’s estate remained intact as it was passed from one generation to the next (Delong 2003). As countries modernized, attitudes toward transfers changed, and tax policy evolved simultaneously. For example, the nineteenth century was a period in U.S. history in which the economy was rapidly expanding and land was plentiful. Accordingly, J. Bradford Delong (2003) notes that Americans began to view inherited wealth with suspicion during this period, asserting instead that to be rich one was supposed to have earned his or her riches through thrift and industry. The shift in attitudes helped to create conditions that allowed for the passage of the first estate tax in 1916, and the tax rates actually have been quite high throughout time, indicating that there have been periods in history in which Americans did not view taxing inter-generational transfers as inappropriate or controversial. For example, during the New Deal era the marginal tax rate on large estates was set at 70 percent (p. 50). However, by the 1990s U.S. attitudes had changed and legislation was passed to phase the estate tax down to zero by 2011.
Why is taxing inheritances or estates so controversial? As with any tax there are trade-offs to contemplate when assessing the likely merits of the tax. Opponents argue that the tax makes it difficult to transfer a family business from one generation to the next, although policymakers presumably can prevent this outcome by setting an exemption for “small” estates. A second potential cause for concern exists because economic theory suggests that taxing estates or inheritances might reduce individuals’ propensity to save. If individuals save because of a bequest motive, one expects them to save less during their lifetime if they fear their savings will be taxed by the government rather than being passed on fully to their heirs. However, the ability to receive an inheritance can also distort behavior. Theory suggests that individuals who receive an inheritance have incentives to reduce their work effort. This distortion to a labor-supply decision provides an argument for levying a tax on inheritances or estates.
SEE ALSO Inequality, Wealth; Inheritance; Wealth
Delong, J. Bradford. 2003. A History of Bequests in the United States. In Death and Dollars: The Role of Gifts and Bequests in America, ed. Alicia H. Munnell and Annika Sunden. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution.
Gates, William H., Sr., and Chuck Collins. 2003. Wealth and Our Commonwealth: Why America Should Tax Accumulated Fortunes. Boston: Beacon.
Pestieau, Pierre. 2003. The Role of Gift and Estate Transfers in the United States and Europe. In Death and Dollars: The Role of Gifts and Bequests in America, ed. Alicia H. Munnell and Annika Sunden. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution.
Vandevelde, Toon. 1997. Inheritance Taxation, Equal Opportunities, and the Desire of Immortality. In Is Inheritance Legitimate? Ethical and Economic Aspects of Wealth Transfers, ed. Guido Erreygers and Toon Vandevelde. New York: Springer.
13 Inheritance Tax
This tax is levied on property that has been left behind by the deceased owners, and collected from those who receive the property as an inheritance or a gift. The purpose of the tax is to regulate the wealth distribution of members of society, which is of active social significance and certain financial significance.
Implemented by many jurisdictions around the world, this tax was once adopted in China in the 1940s. Inheritance Tax was established in 1950, after the foundation of the People's Republic of China, but it was never levied because conditions were not ripe for implementation.
Following various reforms and China's opening to the outside world, and given its economic and social development, the conditions are becoming ripe for implementation.
In accordance with the objectives outlined by various bodies at various times, as discussed below, China will implement Inheritance Tax at the appropriate time.
- The many suggestions of the Central Communist Party Committee.
- The Reform Program of Industrial and Commercial Tax System Reform, drafted by the State Administration of Taxation (SAT) and approved by the State Council on December 25, 1993.
- The Framework of the Ninth 5-Year Plan and the 2010 Future Objectives of the People's Republic of China for National Economic and Social Development, approved at the Fourth Meeting of the 8th National People's Congress (NPC) on March 17, 1996.
- The Framework of the Tenth 5-Year Plan of the People's Republic of China for National Economic and Social Development, approved at the Fourth Meeting of the 9th NPC on March 15, 2001.