Does the Estate Tax Raise Revenue?

51 Pages Posted: 12 Apr 2004 Last revised: 16 Sep 2010

See all articles by B. Douglas Bernheim

B. Douglas Bernheim

Stanford University - Department of Economics; National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER)

Date Written: December 1986


Proponents of transfer taxation argue that levies on gifts and estates serve the dual purposes of breaking up large concentrations of private wealth, while raising significant revenues. A number of commentators have recently questioned the first of these purported advantages, on the grounds that a variety of available estate planning techniques allow wealthy individuals to pass on vast resources essentially tax free. Most techniques entail the use of intra vivos transfers, and are particularly effective when these transfers are made as early in life as possible. In this paper, I argue that the use of these same estate planning techniques also largely neutralize the second objective of transfer taxation by depressing income tax revenues. This effect is reinforced by the tendency for estate taxation to encourage charitable bequests. Although it is difficult to quantify the indirect revenue effects with a high degree of precision, I find that, prior to the Tax Reform Act of 1986, these effects could easily have offset all revenues collected through the estate tax. The recent Tax Reform Act only partially vitiates this conclusions.

Suggested Citation

Bernheim, B. Douglas, Does the Estate Tax Raise Revenue? (December 1986). NBER Working Paper No. w2087. Available at SSRN:

B. Douglas Bernheim (Contact Author)

Stanford University - Department of Economics ( email )

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