Should we abolish the estate tax?

Considering that we have already paid 32% personal income tax and most probably 12% value-added tax in purchasing the property, deducting a further 20% in estate tax would increase the government’s cut on our hard-earned money to an unconscionable level.

What is estate tax and why do some countries such as the Philippines impose estate tax? Why are we being taxed upon death as if our death is a voluntary mode of transferring property? Aren’t we supposed to conserve our property so that we can pass on our legacy and the fruits of our labor to our progeny without the government confiscating a portion thereof?

Estate tax is not a tax on property. Rather, it is a tax on the privilege of the deceased person to transmit his estate to his heirs and beneficiaries at the time of death. It is imposed on the right of transmitting property upon the death of the owner.

The Philippines is not the only country that levies estate tax. We do not even impose the highest rates on estate tax. The US, UK, Japan, South Korea and France also impose estate taxes ranging from 40% to 55%. By way of contrast, 15 of the 34 member countries of the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development do not impose estate or inheritance tax at all.

At present, our estate tax ranges from 0% to 20%. The highest rate is imposed on the value of the net taxable estate exceeding P10 million. If we trace the history of our estate tax, the 20% rate is actually a huge improvement. From July 28, 1992 up to December 31, 1997, the top rate was at 35% on any value exceeding P10 million, while from January 1, 1973 to July 27, 1992 the top rate was a whopping 60% on any value exceeding P3 million.

Proponents of the abolition of estate tax argue that estate tax retards economic development as it depletes capital particularly those used in business. Imagine inheriting a business worth P20 million with most of the assets in real property and equipment. In order to pay for the estate tax, there might emerge a need to liquidate or sell a portion of the business. This will negatively impact on the development or growth of the business, perhaps leading to decreased production and retrenchment.

Another argument in support of repealing estate tax is that it has a narrow tax base and huge administrative cost. Simply put, the costs do not justify the expected tax revenue. For example, in 2007, there were only 29,198 estate tax returns filed, producing P649.9 million worth of estate tax collections.

The Bureau of Internal Revenue (BIR) did not provide the total number of recorded deaths for the same year but noted that the recorded deaths in the National Statistics Office are 415,271 for 2005 and 389,081 for 2006. Basing on the lower number of total deaths, less than 10% of all estates filed the corresponding tax return.

Also, total number of estate tax returns amounted to 29,863 in 2008 and 26,811 in 2009 with total estate tax collections of P854.9 million and P876.8 million, respectively.

Various other countries have acknowledged the need to remove estate taxes. From 2000 to the present, 12 countries have repealed their estate taxes. More are probably on their way to abolishing this tax.

The Philippines appears to be a long way from having an estate tax-free system. The BIR is even increasing its efforts to run after estates which did not file estate returns and pay the correct taxes.

Maybe with elections coming up in 2016, we will have a new set of leaders who will see the value of abolishing estate tax. Until then, we can only hope that our leaders become enlightened.

Eleanor L. Roque is a principal and head of the Tax Advisory and Compliance division of Punongbayan & Araullo. P&A is a leading audit, tax, advisory and outsourcing services firm and is the Philippine member of Grant Thornton International Ltd.

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