Estate Tax Repeal Would Be Devastating for Philanthropy in America

I have some important questions for United States Senators who, along with President Donald Trump, are intent on repealing the estate tax.

Let me be clear: Repeal will hurt millions of people across the country in significant ways, while helping only a few wealthy families. It will create far more losers than winners. One of the biggest casualties will be charitable giving that benefits communities all across the nation.

The vast majority of Americans will never pay the estate tax. Only estates over $5.5 million per individual and $11 million per couple are subject to the tax. As a result, only about one in 500 estates is now taxed.

That said, the estate tax remains a critical incentive for charitable gifts that benefit tens of millions of Americans. Those wealthy enough to pay estate taxes are responsible for a significant percentage of total charitable giving. Their gifts support hospitals, universities, and other nonprofits that improve the quality of life in every state.

People make large charitable contributions for a variety of reasons, and Americans are certainly generous. The estate tax, however, is a compelling motivation for the wealthy to give to charity rather than pay the tax. Without it, there will be a substantial decline in very large gifts: the kind that can be truly transformational.

We saw this happen in 2010 when the estate tax was not in force. During that time, charitable bequests dropped by 37 percent from the previous year (2009), and then rose by 92 percent in the following year (2011) when Congress restored the estate tax.

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From “Estate Taxes and Philanthropy,” by the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, 2017.

What kinds of gifts are we talking about? The Chronicle of Philanthropy has been tracking the kinds of major gifts and bequests the estate tax helps incentivize. The National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, the organization I lead, has analyzed the data, and what we found is striking.

More than $166 billion in publicly reported gifts and bequests of $1 million or more were made from 2005 through July 2017. These gifts are spread all across the country, going to hospitals, colleges, community foundations and arts institutions that benefit countless Americans. The gifts provide financial aid to needy students, advance cutting edge medical research, build new cancer care centers, and provide recreational and cultural opportunities to youth and adults nationwide. Here are a few examples:

  • Colleges and universities in every single state received sizable gifts, for a collective total of more than $52 billion. The data for Arizona shows that Arizona State University and the University of Arizona each received approximately $200 million in these kinds of gifts – gifts to endow professorships, provide scholarships, and establish a new Center for Law and Society. Thousands of Arizona students are benefitting from these gifts. Do Arizona Senators Jeff Flake and John McCain want to see these kinds of donations disappear?
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From: Arizona Estate Tax Fact Sheet, the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, 2017
  • Hospitals and health organizations collectively received nearly $10 billion nationwide. The data for Georgia shows that Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta received a $25 million gift to support transplant services for children, and St. Joseph’s Hospital received a $5 million donation to provide, among other things, cancer screenings for poor people. Do Georgia Senators David Perdue and Johnny Isakson think the people of the state will be better off if the estate tax is repealed and families pass their wealth to their children instead?
  • Some donors create private foundations, which then support a wide array of important causes and charities. In the data we analyzed, donors put more than $81 billion into such foundations. The Hillman Family Foundations in Pittsburgh is one example. They support the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, along with hundreds of other worthy organizations in seven cities. Does Pennsylvania Senator Pat Toomey realize that the $800 million gift to endow that group of foundations was likely motivated, in part, by the estate tax? The Patterson Foundation in Sarasota is another example. The foundation funded the creation of Patriot Plaza, a place of peace and reflection that allows the community to honor veterans. Does Florida Senator Marco Rubio appreciate the fact that other foundations like this one might never get created if he votes to repeal the estate tax?
  • Nearly $5 billion in publicly reported gifts went to community foundations. Nearly every community in the nation has one of these institutions and the people of those communities are benefitting as a result. San Antonio Area Foundation, for example, received a $605 million bequest to support people in need; youth and education; public libraries, parks, and museums; arts and culture; and health care. Do Texas Senators John Cornyn and Ted Cruz realize the impact of this large bequest on constituents?

Transformative charitable gifts that make Americans’ lives better will be endangered if Congress repeals the federal estate tax. Every community across the nation has benefitted from these kinds of gifts.

The U.S. House of Representatives seems highly likely to include full repeal of the estate tax in their tax reform proposal. It falls on our Senators, therefore, to reject this misguided idea.

Aaron Dorfman is president and CEO of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy. Follow @ncrp on Twitter.

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