Lack of Estate Tax in 2010: Now Cheaper to Die?

In 2001, a largely Republican coalition tried to repeal the estate tax permanently, but their majority could not get the bill past a filibuster, and so instead the changes were put into the tax code, meaning they had to be revisited after 10 years. So a gradual phase-out (done to keep some revenue flowing into the budget) and finally full repeal in 2010 would be reinstated in 2011.

"They anticipated that somewhere during the 10-year window they would just go back and repeal it completely," said Williams. "When they did this in the first place, they never thought 2010 would come around as being the only year. It was not intended that way; it was forced up on them by parliamentary rules in the Senate."

Indeed, it does not seem there was too much concern over the law when it came about.

Dr. Paul McHugh, the former chairman of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins, served on the President's Council on Bioethics under Bush. He said that while the idea that people would attempt to die by Dec. 31, 2010 to avoid a tax was discussed casually by members, it was never part of official meetings.

"We certainly didn't discuss this in a serious fashion," said McHugh. "There was a kind of presumption that the idea that taxing people again and again would eventually be seen as unfair."

"They thought that was going to be an unstable proposition," he said of the tax law, adding that he feels "It's going to be hard to bring it back without something of a fuss."

The estate tax only affects the wealthiest; roughly 1 person in 400 pays the estate tax when they die, and only about 5,500 estates are expected to owe estate taxes this year, according to the Tax Policy Institute.

However, the concern illuminates an issue faced by many at the end of life, who are concerned that the resources they consume to extend their lives may diminish what they can leave for their children.

"These are the kinds of pressures people can feel," said McHugh, although as a staunch opponent of physician-assisted suicide, he said it was not a justification for taking one's life. "This death with dignity idea is made even more ridiculous in that this is death for dollars."

Generational Tension

People respond to the pressure of what they leave to their children differently.

"For some people it's a major concern, for some people it's totally irrelevant," said Rosamond Rhodes, director of bioethics education at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine. "It depends on the character of the person, their own priority and values."

But would some people's concern for their children cause them to somehow arrange to die during a year with no estate taxes? Rhodes said she does not think that many people would resort to physician-assisted suicide in light of this tax lophole.

"You can easily imagine the hypothesis, but there's zero evidence supporting the notion that would happen," she said. "It's very hard to imagine people doing that for money."

But some say that the lack of an estate tax may give some who are clinging on to life just another reason to check out early. Eileen Fitzpatrick is an attorney and coauthor with her sister Jeanne, who is a physician, of "A Better Way of Dying" -- a book that deals with decisions to avoid life-saving measures (but not euthanasia) in order to avoid living beyond the time one wants to. She explained that many who die in 2010 of their own accord would likely die from choosing to avoid certain treatments rather than actively attempting suicide.

"People at the end of life reach a point where extending life ceases to be a good thing for that person because the quality of life has so degraded that quality of life has become miserable," Fitzpatrick said.

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