A Framework for Assessing Estate and Gift Taxation

Louis Kaplow

NBER Working Paper No. 7775
Issued in July 2000
NBER Program(s):Public Economics

Whether and how estates and gifts should be taxed has long been a controversial subject, and the approach to estate and gift taxation varies among developed countries. Arguments for and against various forms of transfer taxation have focused on concerns about the distribution of income and wealth, intergenerational equity, raising revenue, savings incentives, and other economic and philosophical issues. This essay has two purposes. The first is to examine the conceptual basis for various arguments for and against the current estate and gift tax regime and proposed alternatives. The second is to integrate policy analysis of transfer taxation with that of the rest of the tax system, notably, the income tax. The analysis begins by considering how it would be optimal to tax transfers if they are viewed simply one of many forms of expenditure by donors, and then it explores how the distinctive features of gifts and bequests may alter the conclusions. The importance of different transfer motives is discussed, and the analysis is reconsidered in the light of the importance of human capital in intergenerational transfers; differences between inter vivos transfers and bequests, between gifts to individuals and gifts to charitable institutions, and among gifts to donees having varying relationships to the donor; and the possibility that transfers are not explained by maximizing behavior.

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Document Object Identifier (DOI): 10.3386/w7775

Published: Gale, William G., James R. Hines Jr., and Joel Slemrod (eds.) Rethinking estate and gift taxation. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2001.

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