Warren Buffett Argues for Taxes at Death

It is trite, but true, as Ben Franklin put it: "Nothing is certain but death and taxes." What's not so certain is whether the government should put the two together.

Taxing death (or the amount an individual has left at the time of death) is commonly referred to as the estate tax. Its detractors call it the "death tax." But no matter what you call it, it raises the federal government more than $24 billion each year.

With an estimated $52 billion -- give or take -- and at No. 2 on this year's Forbes list of the 400 richest Americans, Warren Buffett stands to pay more in estate taxes when he dies than just about anybody but Bill Gates (who's in the $59 billion range).

Buffett's Plea to Uphold Estate Tax

But today on Capitol Hill, Buffett, a financier and philanthropist, made an impassioned plea for senators not to touch the estate tax, asking them not to cut his own postmortem taxes.

While wholesale tax reform may be a ways off on Capitol Hill, Republican senators may try to force a vote on repealing the estate tax later this week as the Senate considers the farm bill. Opponents of the estate tax often point to its effect on families left financially struggling after estate taxes are paid.

Republicans probably lack the 60 votes they would need to pass an estate tax repeal.

Buffett said that is a good thing. He pointed out that more than 99 percent of Americans will be exempt from the estate tax.

"You would have to be at 200 funerals to be at one that has the tax. In fact most people get a tax benefit when they die," he argued. "If people were insistent on renaming the estate tax, it would more properly be called the death present," Buffett remarked to senators on the Finance Committee, a body that authors tax law.

An Ethical Debate Embedded in Tax Law

So more than a practical issue for most voters, the estate tax is an ethical issue -- should children get to keep all the wealth of their parents or just half?

Buffett pointed to growing divides between the expanding class of super rich (of which he is a charter member) and the rest of the country -- common people -- whose salary he said has just barely kept up with inflation.

He pointed to reports that Leona Helmsley's dog is set to inherit something in the neighborhood of $12 million while 20 million Americans make less than $20,000 per year.

"Tax law increases have benefited [the super rich] group in a huge way. During that same period, the average American went exactly nowhere on the economic chart. He's been on a treadmill while the super rich have been on a space ship," Buffett said, adding that what has made America great is the idea that merit can lead to success in this country.

"You don't get to be the quarterback on the University of Nebraska football team just because your father was the quarterback," Buffett said. "The resources of society I don't think should pass along as a dynasty of wealth." Buffett ceded that "my kids are going to have more opportunities than other kids. There's no way around it."

Levels of Affluency

But not all the rich are super rich.

While Buffett owns a grain container manufacturer in Indiana he told senators he has never even visited, Eugene Sukup owns a competing grain manufacturing company, based in Iowa, that he built from the ground up.

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