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By Robert Farley December 14, 2010

Sen. Bernie Sanders says 99.7% of American families would be exempt from estate tax

While the debate over the compromise tax agreement proposed by President Barack Obama has focused mostly on Bush's income tax cuts and whether they ought to be extended to wealthy Americans, the issue of estate taxes has also become a sticking point for some legislators.

Under the plan, the estate tax rate would be set at 35 percent, with an effective exemption of $5 million.

Many Republicans had hoped to do away with the estate tax altogether, and Democrats last year had proposed a higher rate: 45 percent on the value of estates over $3.5 million.

The compromise has ruffled feathers on both sides of the aisle. Sen. Jim DeMint, R.-S.C., for example, said he would not support the plan because he considered the estate tax compromise a tax increase. We ruled that claim Barely True.

Meanwhile, Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont and a self-described democratic socialist, sent out a message via Twitter on Dec. 13, 2010, saying that under the estate tax plan, "99.7% of American families will not pay 1 nickel in an estate tax. This is not a tax on the rich, this is a tax on the very, very, very rich."

According to an analysis by the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center, Sanders is correct.

The Tax Policy Center estimated that about 99.7 percent of estates were exempt from the estate tax in 2009 when the first $3.5 million of an estate was exempt. Even fewer people would be subject to the tax if the threshold is increased to $5 million, as proposed in the compromise tax plan.

Under the compromise plan, less than 2/10 of 1 percent of estates would be subject to the estate tax next year, said Bob Williams of the Tax Policy Center. That means more than 99.8 percent would be completely exempt.
The Tax Policy Center estimates that about 3,600 estates would be subject to the tax under the $5 million threshold. Those 3,600 estates would have to pay an estimated $11.4 billion in estate taxes under the compromise tax plan.

Estate tax rates have fluctuated through modern history. In 2001, President George W. Bush signed a plan to gradually reduce the estate tax from 55 percent to 45 percent, while at the same time increasing the exemption value from $1 million in 2002 to $3.5 million in 2009. The estate tax disappeared altogether in 2010.

But the Bush plan only had a 10-year window because Republicans didn't have the votes at the time to permanently abolish the estate tax. It passed the Senate under budget reconciliation, which requires only a simple majority of 51 votes but which also limited it to a 10-year shelf life. Barring a new tax agreement, the rate was set to revert next year to a 55 percent rate with an effective exemption of $1 million.

Last year, Democrats proposed a plan to permanently set the estate tax rate at 2009 levels -- 45 percent on the value of estates over $3.5 million. But the plan never reached a vote in the Senate. Had that plan gone through, the Tax Policy Center estimates it would have subjected 6,460 estates to a tax (bring in an estimated $18.2 billion). If no tax plan passes, and the rate goes back to 55 percent on the value of estates over $1 million, an 43,540 estates would have to pay (bringing in an estimated $34.4 billion next year).

Sanders was correct that in 2009, when the effective exemption was $3.5 million, about 99.7 percent of all estates were exempt and didn't pay anything. The compromise plan -- which would set effective exemption at $5 million -- would push the number of exempted estates even higher, so that more than 99.8 percent of estates would not pay anything. We rate Sanders' comment True.

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