DP11208 U.S. capital gains and estate taxation: a status report and directions for a reform

Author(s): Wojciech Kopczuk
Publication Date: March 2016
Keyword(s): capital gains tax, Estate tax
JEL(s): H20, H30
Programme Areas: Public Economics
Link to this Page: cepr.org/active/publications/discussion_papers/dp.php?dpno=11208

Recent changes in the U.S. estate taxation significantly reduced its reach and revenue, although the tax continues to contribute to progressivity of the overall tax system and is likely to play a role in influencing the long term concentration of wealth. I discuss recent changes, empirical evidence and theory applying to this form of taxation. I then discuss directions for a reform of the tax. The interaction between estate taxation and other components of the tax system is most important in the context of capital gains, with step up in basis partially compensating for high marginal rates while at the same time creating very strong deferral incentives. Modifying this interaction is long overdue and experience from the temporary repeal of the tax in 2010 is helpful in understanding challenges. I discuss options for modifying this interaction, including implications both for estate tax design and for the great majority of taxpayers who are not subject to the estate tax. Eliminating the step-up in basis would allow for increasing the efficiency of the tax system, while the additional revenue could be used to either mitigate the consequences for the affected taxpayers by reducing the estate tax burden or increasing the overall progressivity. I note that any exemption for capital gains at death does retain deferral incentives for individuals with unrealized capital gains smaller than the exemption and suggest that a lifetime exemption would have better incentive properties. I also note that the treatment of spousal transfers under any capital gains at death approach is critical for the revenue implications.