Will the estate tax stay dead?

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All tax eyes are on what will happen with the expiring Bush tax cuts — specifically, what tax rates will you and I owe in 2011 and beyond?

However, another part of the former president’s tax-law changes was the death in 2010 of the estate tax. The removal of this tax from the Internal Revenue Code, however, is temporary. It’s scheduled to come back to life on Jan. 1, 2011, when a rate of 55 percent will be collected on estates of more than $1 million.

But estate tax opponents say that in addition to shaking up Congress, this week’s election also might have been the permanent death knell for the tax.

American Family Business Institute says an additional 12 senators and 117 congressmen (including incoming freshmen) have signed the organization’s “Death Tax Repeal Pledge,” bringing the total number of repeal supporters to at least 49 in the Senate and 245 in the House.

Congress has been trying all year to come up with an estate tax compromise. Many lawmakers and tax policy experts support the tax’s return because it affects less than 2 percent of the public and raises a lot of tax money.

But many Americans, even those who would never face the estate tax because their holdings are well below the exemption amount, consider the estate tax unfair. And the new look in Congress apparently is starting to reflect that.

Pre-election conventional wisdom was that Congress would keep the estate tax, but bump up the exemption amount to $3.5 million and drop the tax rate to 45 percent or lower. Now it’s looking like there will be a true fight to kill the tax forever.

If the estate tax does survive in the lame-duck session, expect the repeal battle to begin in earnest when the new 112th Congress is seated in January.

So will the estate tax truly die? I’m still skeptical.

As much fun as some lawmakers have chanting ‘Kill the death tax,’ the levy still brings in a lot of tax money. And the 112th Congress will contain a lot of folks who won their seats by promising to reduce the deficit.

If members of Congress are forced to choose between keeping tax rates low for the living and taxing the estates of the dearly departed, I’m putting my money on laws that will benefit the taxpayers who will still be around to vote again next election day.

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