The Wall Street Journal: The 100th anniversary of the estate tax

In 1916, as World War I raged in Europe, Congress wanted to boost U.S. revenues in case America joined the fighting, so lawmakers voted for a new tax on a person’s assets at death. This levy affected fewer than 1% of Americans who died and raised less than 1% of federal revenue in 1917.

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In an editorial at the time, the Wall Street Journal called the tax “frankly a class discrimination.” But most lawmakers who voted in favor of the levy, which had a top rate of 10% and an exemption of $50,000 (about $1 million in current dollars), saw it as a reasonable way to raise revenue. Opponents thought such levies should be left to the states.

So began the modern U.S. estate tax. Today, the tax comes in the form of owing the government up to 40% of your assets at death, above an exemption of $5.45 million per person.

One hundred years later, experts across the political spectrum continue to debate if it should remain.

An expanded version of this report appears at WSJ.com.

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