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An inheritance tax or estate tax is a levy paid by a person who inherits money or property or a tax on the estate (money and property) of a person who has died. In international tax law, there is a distinction between an estate tax and an inheritance tax: an estate tax is assessed on the assets of the deceased, while an inheritance tax is assessed on the legacies received by the beneficiaries of the estate. However, this distinction is not always respected in the language of tax laws. For example, the "inheritance tax" in the United Kingdom is a tax on the assets of the deceased, and is therefore, strictly speaking, an estate tax. For historical reasons, the term death duty is still used colloquially (though not legally) in the United Kingdom and some Commonwealth nations to refer to the estate tax.
Some jurisdictions formerly had estate or inheritance taxes, but have abolished them:
Some jurisdictions have never levied any form of tax in the event of death, including:
Succession duty, in the English fiscal system, "a tax placed on the gratuitous acquisition of property which passes on the death of any person, by means of a transfer from one person (called the predecessor) to another person (called the successor)." In order properly to understand the present state of the English law it is necessary to describe shortly the state of affairs prior to the Finance Act 1894—an act which effected a considerable change in the duties payable and in the mode of assessment of those duties.
The principal act which first imposed a succession duty in England was the Succession Duty Act 1853. By that act a duty varying from 1% to 10% according to the degree of consanguinity between the predecessor and successor was imposed upon every succession which was defined as "every past or future disposition of property by reason whereof any person has or shall become beneficially entitled to any property, or the income thereof, upon the death of any person dying after the time appointed for the commencement of this act, either immediately or after any interval, either certainly or contingently, and either originally or by way of substitutive limitation and every devolution by law of any beneficial interest in property, or the income thereof, upon the death of any person dying after the time appointed for the commencement of this act to any other person in possession or expectancy." The property which is liable to pay the duty is in realty or leasehold estate in the United Kingdom and personalty—not subject to legacy duty—which the beneficiary claims by virtue of English, Scottish or Irish law. Personalty in England bequeathed by a person domiciled abroad is not subject to succession duty. Successions of a husband or a wife, successions where the principal value is under £100, and individual successions under £20, are exempt from duty. Leasehold property and personalty directed to be converted into real estate are liable to succession, not to legacy duty.
Special provision is made for the collection of duty in the cases of joint tenants and where the successor is also the predecessor. The duty is a first charge on property, but if the property be parted with before the duty is paid the liability of the successor is transferred to the alienee. It is, therefore, usual in requisitions on title before conveyance, to demand for the protection of the purchaser the production of receipts for succession duty, as such receipts are an effectual protection notwithstanding any suppression or misstatement in the account on the footing of which the duty was assessed or any insufficiency of such assessment. The duty is by this act directed to be assessed as follows: on personal property, if the successor takes a limited estate, the duty is assessed on the principal value of the annuity or yearly income estimated according to the period during which he is entitled to receive the annuity or yearly income, and the duty is payable in four yearly instalments free from interest. If the successor takes absolutely he pays in a lump sum duty on the principal value. On real property the duty is payable in eight half-yearly instalments without interest on the capital value of an annuity equal to the annual value of the property. Various minor changes were made. By the Customs and Inland Revenue Act 1881, personal estates under 300 were exempted. By the Customs and Inland Revenue Act 1888 an additional 1% was charged on successions already paying 1% and an additional 11% on successions paying more than 1%. By the Customs and Inland Revenue Act 1889 an additional duty of 1% called estate duty was payable on successions over 10,000.
The Finance Acts 1894 and 1909 effected large changes in the duties payable on death. As regards the succession duties they enacted that payment of the estate duties thereby created should include payment of the additional duties mentioned above. Estates under £1000 (£2000 in the case of widow or child of deceased) are exempted from payment of any succession duties. The succession duty payable under the Succession Duty Act 1853 was in all cases to be calculated according to the principal value of the property, i.e. its selling value, and though still payable by instalments interest at 3% is chargeable. The additional succession duties are still payable in cases where the estate duty is not charged, but such cases are of small importance and in practice are not as a rule charged.
The United States imposed a succession duty by the War Revenue Act of 1898 on all legacies or distributive shares of personal property exceeding $10,000. It is a tax on the privilege of succession. Devises or distributions of land are not affected by it. The rate of duty runs from 75 cents on the $100 to $5 on the $100, if the legacy or share in question does not exceed $25,000. On those of over that value the rate is multiplied 11 times on estates up to $100,000, twofold on those from $100,000 to $200,000, 21 times on those from $500,000 to a $1,000,000, and threefold for those exceeding a million. This statute has been supported as constitutional by the Supreme Court.
Many of the states also impose succession duties, or transfer taxes; generally, however, on collateral and remote successions; sometimes progressive, according to the amount of the succession. The state duties generally touch real estate successions as well as those to personal property. If a citizen of state A owns registered bonds of a corporation chartered by state B, which he has put for safe keeping in a deposit vault in state C, his estate may thus have to pay four succession taxes, one to state A, to which he belongs and which, by legal fiction, is the seat of all his personal property; one to state B, for permitting the transfer of the bonds to the legatees on the books of the corporation; one to state C, for allowing them to be removed from the deposit vault for that purpose; and one to the United States.
In some jurisdictions, when assets are transferred by inheritance, any unrealized increase in the value of those assets is subject to capital gains tax, payable immediately. This applies in Canada, which has no inheritance tax. (see Taxation in Canada)
Where a jurisdiction has both capital gains tax and inheritance tax, it is usual to exempt inheritances from capital gains tax.
In some jurisdictions death gives rise to the local equivalent of gift tax (see Austria, for example). This was the model in the United Kingdom during the period before the introduction of Inheritance Tax in 1986, where estates were charged to a form of gift tax called Capital Transfer Tax. Where a jurisdiction has both gift tax and inheritance tax, it is usual to exempt inheritances from gift tax. Also, it is common for inheritance taxes to share some features of gift taxes, by taxing some transfers which happen during the lifetime of the giver rather than on death. The United Kingdom, for example, subjects "lifetime chargeable transfers" (usually gifts to trusts) to inheritance tax.
No inheritance tax is recorded for the Roman Republic, despite abundant evidence for testamentary law. The vicesima hereditatium ("twentieth of inheritance") was levied by Rome's first emperor, Augustus, in the last decade of his reign. The 5 percent tax applied only to inheritances received through a will, and close relatives were exempt from paying it, including the deceased's grandparents, parents, children, grandchildren, and siblings. The question of whether a spouse was exempt is complicated: from the late Republic on, husbands and wives kept their own property scrupulously separate, since a Roman woman remained part of her birth family and not under the legal control of her husband. Roman social values regarding marital devotion probably exempted a spouse as well. Estates below a certain value were also exempt from the tax, according to one source, but other evidence indicates that this was true only in the early years of Trajan's reign. The revenues from the tax went into a fund to pay military retirement benefits (aerarium militare), along with those from a new sales tax ((centesima rerum venalium), a 1 percent tax on goods sold at auction). The inheritance tax is extensively documented in sources pertaining to Roman law, inscriptions, and papyri. It was one of three major indirect taxes levied on Roman citizens in the provinces of the Empire.