President Trump put out a tax plan that the administration described as a set of principles and guidelines, rather than as a complete policy proposal. But on one point, the administration was perfectly clear: The estate tax needs to be repealed.
That move would be highly lucrative for the upper crust of America’s upper crust, including Trump himself and most members of the president’s Cabinet.
The estate tax is paid out of the estates of well-off Americans when they pass away. All but the largest estates — those with a gross value of over $5.49 million in 2017 — are exempt, and on average, fewer than 1 out of every 500 Americans who die in a given year leave estates that are subject to the tax.
By contrast, according to estimates by The Washington Post, 13 out of the 24 officials in Trump’s Cabinet own estates that are large enough to pay the estate tax.
Collectively, they could owe as much as $1.5 billion, The Post found.
Repealing the estate tax would leave the federal government short some $27 billion in revenue annually, making less money available for the military, scientific research, aid to the poor and other services funded by the government. At the same time, repeal would add to the advantages that the children of the very rich enjoy from birth over other Americans. For the families of some of Trump’s closest advisers, repealing the tax would provide enormous material benefits.
Estimating the total tax bill requires first assessing how much each Cabinet member is worth. Bloomberg News has compiled data on most of them, from the not-quite-millionaires (Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, $865,000) to the fabulously rich (Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, $2.9 billion).
Bloomberg did not have data on a few members of the Cabinet, so we supplemented their numbers with estimates based on official financial disclosures. These disclosures only offer ranges, not precise figures, so we took the midpoint of those ranges as a rough indicator of the net worth for each of the other Cabinet members. Residential mortgages were excluded from these estimates, since federal officials are not required to disclose the value of their homes.
Here are the results.
A note before going forward. Estates are taxed at the time of their holder’s passing. There’s no way of knowing when that will be (and all involved are wished a long and happy life) or how big the estates will be at that time, so these calculations are based the current size of the estate.
And there are many measures the wealthy can take to reduce the size of their estates on paper. For instance, Bloomberg reported that Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has put at least $32.9 million in what is known as a dynastic trust, a vehicle that will allow that money to be transferred directly to his heirs without incurring estate tax.
These strategies to reduce the value of estates are controversial. But taxpayers can also reduce the rate they pay on their estates, regardless of their value. Keeping in mind that these estimates of the size of the estates of Trump’s Cabinet are uncertain, we turned to figuring out what rates the estates were likely to pay.
Estates that qualify for the tax face a steep 40 percent rate, but that bill can be reduced in a couple of ways. Money left for spouses and charities is not taxed, and estates can also subtract the deceased person’s debts from their value when figuring out how much they owe.
After all those deductions, what’s left is the effective tax rate, and for that, The Post used the average effective rate paid on the estate in question.
When you dig into IRS estate tax statistics and factor out these various deductions, you get an overall effective estate tax rate of about 16.9 percent for 2013. That rate varies quite a bit by the size of the estate — smaller estates tend to pay less, while larger estates pay more.
Assuming that members of Trump’s Cabinet leave typical amounts of money to their spouses and to charity, we applied these rates to our estimates of each official’s net worth to see how much estate tax each of them would theoretically be on the hook for.
All told, the elimination of the estate tax could get Trump’s Cabinet out of a tax bill as steep as $1.5 billion. Ross’s potential $711 million estate tax bill accounts for about half of that total. The bills for the Small Business Administration’s Linda McMahon and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos account for most of the rest.
Those figures give an idea of the sheer magnitude of the liabilities the estate tax imposes on the rich and powerful, but again, any differences between our estimates of the size of the estates and the numbers that will be eventually reported to the IRS would change the overall bill. Officials who use legal maneuvers to reduce the value of their estates would pay less. Those who add to their assets in their remaining years would pay more.
During the campaign, Trump proposed replacing the estate tax with a tax on gains on investments assessed at the investors’ death. That would cancel out some of the benefits for his Cabinet of repealing the estate tax, and what each member would pay is impossible to calculate without detailed information about their finances.
After the administration put out a new memo on tax restructuring last week, though, it is no longer clear whether the estate tax would be replaced with some other kind of tax on wealth.
If one assumes Trump has a net worth of $3.5 billion (Trump has claimed it’s far higher but hasn’t disclosed enough information for a definitive assessment of his net worth), the president is looking at a potential estate tax bill of $857 million or more.