Death, taxes, and farming: Congress needs to fix 2013’s estate tax levels

Benjamin Franklin said death and taxes were supposed to be life’s certainties. However, when you combine the two, the result is anything but certain for Wisconsin farm families. Estate taxes (sometimes called death taxes) are as unpredictable as Mother Nature.

Between 2002 and 2012, the federal estate tax exemption and tax rate changed nine times. To say the estate tax’s on-again-off-again nature makes it difficult for farmers to plan for a transfer of the family farm to the next generation is like saying this past summer was a little dry.

Here’s the looming problem: As recently as 2009, less than 2% of farms were subject to the estate tax when the exemption was $3.5 million. That’s a good thing, because when Uncle Sam comes to the farm to pay his last respects (in the form of the estate tax), survivors without enough cash may be forced to sell off portions of a farm that took generations to build.

Without action from Congress, next year’s estate tax has a top rate of 55% and a $1 million exemption. The U.S. Agriculture Department estimates 10% of farms will be subject to the estate tax. The $1 million per person exemption means a married couple with a 500-acre farm in Wisconsin will find themselves subject to the estate tax when one of them dies.

Here’s why this is particularly painful and important in farm country: Estate taxes can hit farm families harder than other small businesses because 86% of their assets are real estate-based. Farming takes a lot of capital assets (land and equipment) to generate the same dollar in income that another type of business could generate with less. 

Once the November election is over, the Wisconsin Farm Bureau wants Congress to provide an estate tax provision that would increase the exemption level to $5 million and adjust it for inflation while reducing the maximum rate to 35%. This allows farm families a better chance of feeding the world for another generation.

There has been lots of talk about people getting their “fair share” this election season. Well, farmers ought to have the ability to pass the farm to the next generation.  

Farming by its very nature is unpredictable. Look no further than last summer’s drought for proof. Without proper planning, a drought can wipe away generations of equity in a single disastrous harvest. Our federal government should not be setting up farm families for the same kind of pitfall by failing to fix the estate tax structure.  

Casey Langan is the executive director of public relations for the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation.

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