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Art’s Sale Value? Zero. The Tax Bill? $29 Million.
July 22, 2012 10:20 AM   Subscribe

What is the fair market value of an object that cannot be sold? When art dealer Ileana Sonnabend passed away in 2007 at the age of 92, she left her children an art collection estimated to be worth $1,000,000,000. Over a forty year career, Sonnabend, along with her first husband and business partner Leo Castelli, worked with many of contemporary art world's best known artists, including Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg & Andy Warhol. One of the inherited paintings, Robert Rauschenberg's Canyon has become the center of a dispute between the Sonnabend's children and the I.R.S.
posted by R. Mutt (91 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite

 


It is an interesting question, but a $0 appraisal for an artwork which cannot legally be sold makes the assumption that the value of a work derives solely from its resale value, and that's clearly not true.

It would be a neat trick, however, to avoid paying taxes on it and then turn around and make millions by charging people money to look at it; which, I presume, is what they would have done with it anyway.
posted by koeselitz at 10:31 AM on July 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


...a $0 appraisal for an artwork which cannot legally be sold makes the assumption that the value of a work derives solely from its resale value, and that's clearly not true.

For tax purposes? Really? You're saying the IRS should be able to tax items based on aesthetic value?

It would be a neat trick, however, to avoid paying taxes on it and then turn around and make millions by charging people money to look at it;

Then they would be taxed on the income derived from the exhibition of the piece, so I fail to see your point here.
posted by Floydd at 10:35 AM on July 22, 2012 [39 favorites]


It would be a neat trick, however, to avoid paying taxes on it and then turn around and make millions by charging people money to look at it; which, I presume, is what they would have done with it anyway.

It's on (permanent?) loan to a museum. From the first link:

Even then, the government revisited the issue in 1998. Rauschenberg himself had to send a notarized statement attesting that the eagle had been killed and stuffed by one of Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders long before the 1940 law went into effect. Mrs. Sonnabend was then able to retain ownership as long as the work continued to be exhibited at a public museum. The piece is on a long-term loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, which Mr. Lerner said insures it, but the policy details are confidential.
posted by andoatnp at 10:36 AM on July 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


Normally, when you can't pay the taxes on a gift or inheritance, you are compelled to sell it in order to get the cash to pay the IRS (the family has sold a lot of the other artwork in the collection for just this reason).
posted by 445supermag at 10:36 AM on July 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


It is times like this that you wish you could just send title on the thing to the IRS as payment for its own $29 Mil tax bill and ask for a refund on $36 mil you've previously paid. You could suggest that the IRS consider taking advantage of its value by putting it on permanent loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
posted by meinvt at 10:39 AM on July 22, 2012 [26 favorites]


The fact that it is insured for some value might pose problems for them, also the zero dollar value presupposes that the Secretary of the Interior will never give them a permit to sell the work.

the assumption that the value of a work derives solely from its resale value, and that's clearly not true.

Not true in an intrinsic sense or a tax law sense? Because the latter is the important part.
posted by BrotherCaine at 10:40 AM on July 22, 2012


I went to a continuing legal education seminar that was by a guy whose entire practice is in valuing and disputing the value of high-end art in rich-people divorces. Apparently it's pretty common to claim one value (or rather two values!) in the divorce, and another value to the IRS, and a third value when donating, and this is high on the list of Things That Do Not Amuse The IRS. It was pretty freaking fascinating. High on the list of "things that will never, ever be relevant to my life" but it was a really interesting window into a very unique area of law.

You can get yourself in real trouble by high-balling or low-balling the appraisal during the divorce to win yourself a more favorable distribution of assets, and then turning around with a "true" appraisal to the IRS.

(It also reminds me that one of the questions on my tax law final was about whether a violin was appreciating or depreciating, and whether the answer would be different if it was a tractor. Oh, law. You so crazy.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:52 AM on July 22, 2012 [20 favorites]


Mr. Anderson this is the IRS. We understand you are in possession of a pocket watch previously belonging to your grandfather, described as "a priceless family heirloom". Yet, you did not report this sentimental value as per the sentimental value-added-tax of 1983.

Your personal blog also claims you are "rich in love". These are very serious charges, Mr. Anderson.
posted by Winnemac at 10:59 AM on July 22, 2012 [7 favorites]


Can't they just give it away?

Then they would be taxed on the income derived from the exhibition of the piece, so I fail to see your point here.

This doesn't follow. If someone leaves me a house, should I pay no inheritance tax because I will be paying tax on the theoretical rental income?
posted by alexei at 11:01 AM on July 22, 2012


If someone left you a house, you could sell it. It's a different situation.
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 11:11 AM on July 22, 2012 [2 favorites]


Note to myself: The nest egg I leave to my children will not contain an albatross.
posted by hal9k at 11:13 AM on July 22, 2012 [7 favorites]


Having just read the IRS regulations on charitable donations of art and the rules about appraisal, I recall that they use the term "FMV (Fair Market Value)" as the number to be provided on appraisals (as the OP does). So if the art can't be sold, then I'd say it obviously has a market value of zero. But this is definitely why I'm not a lawyer.

The insurance value is totally different from the FMV -- because insurance value assumes that you could replace the object if it were lost or destroyed. And who is insuring the piece? If it were any museum I'd ever worked in, the museum would be insuring it.

For those mentioning the exhibition charge, the Metropolitan Museum of Art is technically free, if you're brave enough to refuse to pay for entrance.
posted by obliquicity at 11:17 AM on July 22, 2012


Bald Eagles are CITES-protected and their carcasses cannot be given away (per the first link in the FPP). I think that the only thing they could do would be to destroy it, but even then I think they're still facing penalties for failing to "properly" value it the first time around. I'm not a lawyer or accountant or anything, but can anyone say if destroying the painting (or even just the eagle part) would be likely to have any effect on the value of this piece?

What seems tricky to me is that while the artwork has no monetary value right now since it's illegal to sell, it would have value were it to be sold illegally or were a permit issued for its legal sale. Also there is the issue of the insurance policy – details have not been disclosed, but if the owners took out insurance on the artwork then surely they must have thought it had some value then, and the insurance agency must surely have agreed.

It seems clear to me that the painting does have a price attached, even if it's illegal to actually claim it. But then, so do my kidneys. And so do illegal drugs and other contraband, which are regularly taxed when seized. The painting isn't exactly contraband as its owners have a permit to possess it. It's definitely an odd situation but I can't help but feel that the owners are being a bit disingenuous with the "oh no, it's totally worthless, it's just this painting by a renowned artist whose other works sell for millions and which we have an insurance policy on that we'd rather not talk about" line, you know?

Still though, why did the IRS increase their assessment from $15 million to $65 million so suddenly? That's separate from the $29 million penalty fee for not "correctly" valuing it in the first place, right? Seems almost petty, and I'm not sure I understand what the rationale was supposed to be there.

Oh well, looks like it'll have to be sorted out in court. Should set an interesting, if obscure, legal precedent.
posted by Scientist at 11:17 AM on July 22, 2012


If someone left you a house, you could sell it. It's a different situation.

Only if the resale value of the house is approximately equal to the tax value. Otherwise we're still working off of two completely different metrics here. Think more property on the historical registry, but is currently in a state of dis-repair and less condo in the city. With the former you cannot legally sell but could profit in other ways, the latter could sell easily as well as earn income via rent.

That being said, the particular piece of art is pretty ugly, and I really wouldn't want it hanging in my house anyway.
posted by Blue_Villain at 11:21 AM on July 22, 2012


If someone leaves me a house, should I pay no inheritance tax because I will be paying tax on the theoretical rental income?

You are confusing two things: the intrinsic financial value of an asset and value of income generated by the object. The ability to generate income may somewhat increase the intrinsic financial value, but what the financial value is based on is what you could get for it if you converted it to cash by selling it, using it as collateral for a loan. When the asset changes hands, that value is taxed. A buyer pays sales tax, a seller pays tax on their profit, often the owner is charged property tax every year on the current value of the asset (especially for a house). And just as the seller is charged tax on his profit if he sells it, an inheritor pays tax on the value when he acquires it.

Income generated by the asset is a different matter and is taxed as income, such as fees from exhibiting an item, fees charged for use of an item, etc.

The problem is that this item can not be converted to cash. It can't be sold and thus it has no value as collateral. It may have an income producing value, but that can't increase its cash value because it has no cash value. Thus, there was no profit transferred to the inheritor to be taxed.
posted by pbrim at 11:26 AM on July 22, 2012


And here I went through life assuming that estate law could never contain an actually interesting debate.
posted by nonreflectiveobject at 11:31 AM on July 22, 2012 [3 favorites]


That being said, the particular piece of art is pretty ugly, and I really wouldn't want it hanging in my house anyway.
posted by Blue_Villain at 11:21 AM on July 22 [+] [!]


I think the piece of art in question is beautiful and I would proudly display it in my house. Hell, I would be honored to display it in my house!

As far as it's value, I wonder what the difference would be in saying for tax purposed that the piece was worth $0 vs saying it was "priceless"? Equivalent works from the artist are sold for millions, but if this can't be sold, wouldn't it then follow that it can't have a price? I guess this is mostly semantics if you're filling out tax forms, but it would get around the discomfort of saying such an important piece of historical art is worth zero dollars, which is clearly untrue.

I'm not a lawyer or accountant or anything, but can anyone say if destroying the painting (or even just the eagle part) would be likely to have any effect on the value of this piece?

(gasp) Well, perhaps if Rauschenberg was still alive and altered the piece himself, it might retain it's value, but now that he's gone removing the eagle would definitely alter it's "price". I don't know if there's any precedent, but the idea seems almost sacrilege. Destroying it entirely would solve the problem I suppose, as there would be no painting to attach value to at all.
posted by smartypantz at 11:51 AM on July 22, 2012


the zero dollar value presupposes that the Secretary of the Interior will never give them a permit to sell the work

I'm just a simple bumpkin in these matters, but the value of a thing can change. Presumably if the piece became sellable at some point, and they sold it, they'd pay some sort of capital-gains tax on the difference between that and $0.
posted by hattifattener at 11:53 AM on July 22, 2012


Speaking as someone who spent a reasonable amount of time with a Leo Castelli donated collection: -Bwa-ha-hah-ha-ha-ha-ahhhh-.

*snicker, snort, sigh*

The price of everything and the value of nothing, as Mr. Wilde would say. Art is. Value is even less. Cultural currency is angel farts and spider dreams. Artistic weight is a a strange and terrible thing to judge. It may be important and worthless (as several pieces I own are) or it may be unimportant and crazy valuable because of a great name (as several pieces I've sold are).

Also to add: *Ha-hahahahhaha*.

Ahhh, accountants.. *snicker* Buy art because you love it, folks, never, ever depend on it as an investment, and if you force your accountant to deal with it, tip him well... *snort*
posted by 1f2frfbf at 11:55 AM on July 22, 2012 [3 favorites]


I'm just a simple unfrozen caveman country doctor, but the insurance company could have entered into the arrangement even if the art were worth zero, in a scenario where the insurance company thought it was a really good bet that the work would not be stolen (because the US government might deploy disproportionate resources to track down a thief, because of the bald eagle, and parties involved in the sale or theft would therefore face much greater risk in prosecution and sentencing), or damaged (because the work would be eternally in the care of a responsible museum).

So the insurance company could say "yes, the terms of this million dollar bet are advantageous to us, because the risk is well bounded, and the payments are good." That may however have to do with the value of the bet, and nothing to do with the value of the work.
posted by zippy at 12:18 PM on July 22, 2012


I suspect that the IRS is deliberately pushing this to court, because of the conflict between the need to push back between appraisal game-playing (as Eyebrows McGee describes above) and the highly unusual status of this artwork. In financial accounting terms we'd call this an impaired asset, but tax is its own beast.

I know that the heirs to the Sonnabend estate have already sold off a considerable portion of the collection to satisfy the estate taxes; does anyone know if there were other disputes regarding valuation of items in the collection? That might also inform how the IRS views this particular case.

There's a huge difference between taxing it now as part of the estate and taxing it later on a legal sale. (Per some special dispensation from the government.) The top estate tax rate is 35%, but capital gains on art is 28%. On a sale price of $65,000,000 there's approximately a 4.5 million dollar difference in those two varieties of tax bills.
posted by stowaway at 12:19 PM on July 22, 2012


The sticking point seems to be the eagle. If it is already dead and was killed before the relevant federal law was enacted, it seems like an exceptional situation where a license to sell the artwork could reasonably be granted, which solves everyone's problems.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 12:22 PM on July 22, 2012 [4 favorites]


And it's my understanding from the article that the museum is paying for insurance, not the estate. And you can get insurance on things that might not have an easily ascertained FMV, life insurance or insurance on wedding jewelry is a good example of that. Even if there's no legal sale price attached to the piece, the museum likely would be harmed by the loss of the artwork. Having a major piece of artwork like that in their collection (even as a long-term loan) benefits the museum -- attracting visitors and donors.
posted by stowaway at 12:23 PM on July 22, 2012


Right, Blazecock Pileon -- but given the different set of tax rates, it's clear that the government has a strong incentive to have it taxed now as part of the estate, rather than tax it later on capital gains.
posted by stowaway at 12:24 PM on July 22, 2012


And you can get insurance on things that might not have an easily ascertained FMV

Right...the insurance need not be only for "replacement." Someone could damage the piece, and the insurance would pay for repairing it. And even if you focus on total loss (i.e. theft, destruction), having somebody who'll be on the hook for millions of dollars, means that someone is going to be looking carefully at the precautions in place to prevent such loss.

Eyebrows is right: this is a fascinating area of law!
posted by spacewrench at 12:32 PM on July 22, 2012


The Art Advisory Panel's $65 million seems ridiculously arbitrary; from the 2nd link:

Lerner told ARTnews that the first IRS notice the estate received for Canyon, last fall, contained a suggested valuation of $15 million. He refused to pay. Weeks later, he received the formal Notice of Deficiency that increased Canyon’s value to $65 million. “How do you get a $50 million increase in value in a period of several weeks?” he asks.

Lerner and other art experts are puzzled by the $65 million valuation, even accounting for the iconic status of the work and the artist. The top price ever paid for a Rauschen­berg at auction is $14.6 million, for Overdrive (1962), which sold at Sotheby’s in May 2008.


And yet here's Stephanie Barron, senior curator of 20th-century art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, attempting to justify the panel's decision:

"The ruling about the eagle is not something the Art Advisory Panel considered," Ms. Barron said, adding that the work’s value is defined by its artistic worth. "It’s a stunning work of art and we all just cringed at the idea of saying that this had zero value. It just didn’t make any sense."

But valuing this work over 4 times what any previous Rauschenberg had sold for does make sense?
posted by mediareport at 12:34 PM on July 22, 2012 [2 favorites]


Many, many years ago I read an interview with Rauschenberg in which he complained about his ongoing battles with the I.R.S.. Four years after his death, perhaps he is about to win one.
posted by R. Mutt at 12:35 PM on July 22, 2012


(Oops, that first quote isn't from the 2nd link, but the Sonnabend heirs, IRS dispute value of ‘Canyon’ link at ArtNews.)
posted by mediareport at 12:40 PM on July 22, 2012


The sticking point seems to be the eagle. If it is already dead and was killed before the relevant federal law was enacted, it seems like an exceptional situation where a license to sell the artwork could reasonably be granted, which solves everyone's problems.

Yes, the second link, from ArtNews, says

Rauschenberg came to the rescue. In a notarized statement, he recounted that an artist named Sari Dienes lived in the building above Carnegie Hall in New York during the 1950s. Among the other tenants was a member of Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders, the first U.S. Volunteer Cavalry. The man, who was not named, “acquired from the wild, a bald eagle which he had taxidermied prior to 1940,” the statement said. After the man died in 1959, Dienes retrieved the eagle from the trash and offered it to Rauschenberg.

The information allowed Sonnabend to retain possession of the eagle, and confirmed that she was the rightful owner.


So the government is playing it both ways. They acknowledged that the eagle was grandfathered into the law so that it could be transferred to the heir, and also acknowledged the exemption whenit granted international transport waivers for previous exhibitions. But for tax purposes, when the taxable value of the artwork would be established in a sale, they're refusing to acknowledge it. So this will end up in court for a definitive ruling. It is possible a court could declare this eagle as definitively pre-1940 so it could be sold legally.

This eagle protection law is definitely in an interesting conflict with tax law. The eagle law prohibits receiving transferring the work in exchange for any consideration whatsoever. They can't even work out a deal with the IRS to donate it to the Smithsonian for $0 in exchange for nullifying their tax burden. I don't think it would even be legal to destroy the work and just get rid of the problem.
posted by charlie don't surf at 12:50 PM on July 22, 2012


BILL: I know this is a ridiculous question before I ask, but you by any chance haven't kept up with your swordplay?
BUDD: Hell, I pawned that years ago.

BILL: You pawned a Hattori Hanzo sword?

BUDD: Yep.

BILL: It was priceless.

BUDD: Not in El Paso it ain't. In El Pso I got me 250 Dollars for it.

posted by mullingitover at 12:55 PM on July 22, 2012 [5 favorites]


Janet Novak notes in the February Forbes story, that the Sonnabend family played straight with the IRS on every other art piece they've valued:

While many of the rich make an art form of tax minimization, Sonnabend cared only about art. She used no fancy devices to transfer wealth at a lesser tax cost and didn’t even use up her lifetime gift tax exemption. Indeed, looking at the other (mostly minor) adjustments the IRS made to her $875 million estate, one would have to conclude her estate played it straight too— the IRS Art Advisory panel made no other upward adjustments on the value the estate had placed on works in her collection.

And again, in a post today, The IRS Art Advisory Panel Has Its Head In The Clouds:

In fact, according to what Lerner told Forbes, the IRS auditor in charge did seem to realize the art panel’s feet might not have been planted in terra firma and sent the estate an unsigned report suggesting “Canyon” would be valued at $15 million. When Lerner refused to agree it had any value, the estate was sent the $65 million assessment and he called Bothwell who then offered the creative Chinese billionaire defense...

Sonnabend and her heirs have shown absolutely no proclivity to violate the law. If the government is smart (and fair) it will cave on this one. Does it really want to litigate a case where the facts are so sympathetic to the taxpayer—an estate that played no games and has already willingly forked over $331 million in estate tax to Uncle Sam and $140 million to New York State?

posted by mediareport at 12:59 PM on July 22, 2012 [4 favorites]


One of my favourite things in the world is the tiny details of sales, the after effects of contemporary art's figuring out how far they can go--what to do with rberg's eagle, how to make early plastic sculptures less brittle, how to get the right candy's for felix gonzales torres' installations, how to make polaroids stop from going blank, how to handle burri's work unravelling, who is going to fix the industrial detrious around the spiral jetty, what to do about manzetti's exploding cans of shit, what about the insurance nightmares that are part of nitsch's blood work, how do you reattach things that fall off of combines, and how do you sell a work with an eagle when eagles are illegal. super fascinating.
posted by PinkMoose at 1:05 PM on July 22, 2012 [9 favorites]


The whole scheme of estate taxation seems deeply unfair. Why should you pay tax on the value of a thing from which you've received no income? I mean, I can understand the argument for taxing cash that's handed down, I guess (though it amounts to double-taxation, tax having been paid on that money as it was earned). But when it comes to artwork? Even if you don't think that inheritances should be tax-exempt, which I do, tax should be payable if that artwork is subsequently sold, not simply for receiving it, which put no money in your pocket to pay tax.
posted by Dasein at 1:29 PM on July 22, 2012 [3 favorites]



But when it comes to artwork? Even if you don't think that inheritances should be tax-exempt, which I do, tax should be payable if that artwork is subsequently sold, not simply for receiving it, which put no money in your pocket to pay tax.


Not saying that I agree or disagree with estate taxes, but the estate pays the tax on its value passed to the beneficiary. Later, the beneficiary pays the capital gains tax upon sale to a third party. The basis in the artwork would receive a "step-up" to the value flowing from the estate, which would reduce the capital gain recognized.
posted by Mojojojo at 1:41 PM on July 22, 2012


The whole scheme of estate taxation seems deeply unfair.

What makes one think the IRS is meant to be fair?

Didn't the Church Commission determine that the IRS had been used for political purposes?

What is the penalty if the IRS oversteps its bounds? You've got to pay an attorney to fight them - who pays to defend the IRS Agent who oversteps their bounds?
posted by rough ashlar at 1:47 PM on July 22, 2012


Dasein: The whole scheme of estate taxation seems deeply unfair.

Inheritance is already unfair. You get access to assets you did nothing to earn or deserve. But taxes are not about fairness, anyway.
posted by Mitrovarr at 1:48 PM on July 22, 2012 [2 favorites]


Mojojojo: the value to the beneficiary is purely paper value, while the IRS wants cash, now. It would be like paying capital gains tax when you stock value went up, before you sold the stock. And in this case, where you are unable to sell your stock!

Inheritance is already unfair. You get access to assets you did nothing to earn or deserve.

I don't see any unfairness in people being able to give to their children what they've worked their whole life to save. It's no more unfair than your parents helping you with money for your education or housing while they're alive - you didn't earn that money either. It's family money, not the government's money. Tax was paid when it was earned.

But taxes are not about fairness, anyway.

I think that at root, they are, and they should be. It's fair to pay taxes because we all take some benefit from society. Taxes rates absolutely should aim at fairness - we don't tax the poor at 70%, because that would be unfair. It's also unfair to tax people, even if they're from a rich family, on assets that we bought with after-tax dollars, and which provide them with no means to pay the tax.
posted by Dasein at 1:54 PM on July 22, 2012 [2 favorites]


Inheritance is already unfair.
No it's not. You have the right to give your property to anyone you wish. To deny that right would be unfair.
posted by w0mbat at 2:01 PM on July 22, 2012 [4 favorites]


Isn't the idea of the estate tax to try and provide a way to prevent vast sums of wealth from just accumulating up in the upper economic strata of society where they don't do any good except arguably for the vanishingly small number of people who were lucky enough to have wealthy parents? Thereby increasing economic liquidity and social mobility by using a portion of that wealth to fund social projects and get it circulating around where somebody else can have a chance at it rather than just having big ossified lumps of wealth just stagnating forever in the hands of the heirs of the ultra-rich.

Why is it fair that a tiny handful of people should get rocketed to the very top of the economic ladder just because they had rich parents? And it's not as if we tax estates enough to prevent this from happening anyway, I mean, that art collection is theoretically worth one billion dollars and the estate tax burden is "only" a few hundred million, leaving about seven hundred million dollars to be shared amongst the children. I'm having a hard time feeling the terrible injustice there.
posted by Scientist at 2:03 PM on July 22, 2012 [7 favorites]



Mojojojo: the value to the beneficiary is purely paper value, while the IRS wants cash, now. It would be like paying capital gains tax when you stock value went up, before you sold the stock. And in this case, where you are unable to sell your stock!


I didn't say that the IRS's position on the valuation of the unsalable artwork was valid. I would value it at zero.

The estate tax is on the transfer of assets to beneficiaries, which is the taxable event. That the assets are not liquid is unfortunate, but the estate has other salable assets.
posted by Mojojojo at 2:06 PM on July 22, 2012


I mean, why should people have the right to give their property to anyone they wish? Mightn't it be more "fair" if we just liquidated everyone's wealth when they died and put it in a big pot (like a huge mutual fund or something) and whenever someone else's parents died they would get a standardized share of that money? What makes one person more deserving than another just because their parents had seven houses, three yachts, a helicopter, and a controlling share in a trans-national mining corporation?
posted by Scientist at 2:06 PM on July 22, 2012 [2 favorites]


Actually, I wonder how much money that pot would actually pay out if we did something like that (not that it would be remotely possible to get something like that passed) and then let it run for ten or so years before it started to pay out. Just as a thought experiment, I mean – the details of implementation would no doubt be just as compliated as they are under the current system and I can think of several holes in the plan (and potential solutions) but just, you know, if we did that in theory how much would a person get when their parents died?
posted by Scientist at 2:09 PM on July 22, 2012


I mean, why should people have the right to give their property to anyone they wish?

Because that's what property is. Yours to use, profit from, and alienate as you see fit.

What makes one person more deserving than another

That's a ridiculous way to frame the question. It's not about the beneficiary being more deserving, it's about the testator having a right to dispose of their property as they see fit. The fact that you die doesn't mean that your property is subject to 100% tax. In case you've forgotten, tax was already paid on that property - when the income was earned, and again when it was purchased, if we're talking about something other than cash.
posted by Dasein at 2:14 PM on July 22, 2012 [3 favorites]


Really nasty business on the part of the IRS. Their attorney, Robert Lerner is the top Lawyer for art and estates, does things by the book, and I am certain that he was particularly careful with the Sommabend estate as it is a well known collection with high visibility. The gallery been audited over and over as I am sure the estate was too. They paid the IRS top dollar and nothing was disputed.

Just because the estate could sell one of Rauchenberg's most famous pieces that hangs in the Metropolital Museum on permanent loan, on the black market, is the basis for the absurd tax. This is a really nasty way of assessing tax due. It is tantamount to putting someone in jail for thought crime.

If the estate had assessed the piece for fair market value, which would have been generously around $10mil, the federal government could have said that they were committing a crime because the piece cannot be sold. And considering the large tax bill the estate paid,with nothing disputed, which is rare for this type of estate, it would have been minuscule to pay the tax on Canyon, and well worth it to avoid any hassle from the IRS. But I am sure that Lerner decided that it would have been illegal or, present legal complications to assess a value greater than zero for the piece, and made the prudent choice to assess it at zero.
posted by snaparapans at 2:20 PM on July 22, 2012 [6 favorites]


Why do estate tax discussions always have to start with reductio ad absurdum definitions?

I personally believe that as a society it is to our benefit to have the opportunity for individuals to generate wealth and assets to themselves through achievement. In order for this opportunity to be present a substantial proportion of assets need to be in circulation and available. Estate taxes are a significant tool to allowing society to be a bit more of a meritocracy and a bit less of a aristocracy.

I support estate taxes and in fact believe they should be larger. I support the relatively generous rules that allow you to pass on millions to inheritors untaxed and even more before death as untaxed gifts.
posted by meinvt at 2:27 PM on July 22, 2012 [4 favorites]


Yeah, I was just trying to use an extreme idea as a thought experiment to try and question the fundamental assumption underlying inheritance which are that dead people have rights and that wealth accumulated by a person in life ought to remain with that person's family when they die. I'm not at all sure that these assumptions trump other social goods like economic mobility, egalitarianism, and public works. Which is why we have the estate tax, as a compromise between the two opposing cultural forces – I was just trying to create a thought experiment to help examine some of the good things that might happen if we erred on the side of the common good instead of the side of personal property.
posted by Scientist at 2:33 PM on July 22, 2012


The common good is served by people working hard and producing wealth. Why would I have any incentive to accumulate any more than I need for my retirement if it's going to be taxed away at my death? My incentive will be to dispose of it as gifts in order to avoid tax.

Canada has no estate tax, and is a significantly more egalitarian society than the U.S. Estate taxes are irrelevant to building an egalitarian society; income tax rates and social programs are not. The latter have the virtue of being fair, as well, which estate taxes are not.
posted by Dasein at 2:52 PM on July 22, 2012 [3 favorites]


The common good is served by people working hard and producing wealth. Why would I have any incentive to accumulate any more than I need for my retirement if it's going to be taxed away at my death? My incentive will be to dispose of it as gifts in order to avoid tax.

I wouldn't say 35% of taxable value of an estate less the $5.12mm exemption and allowable expenses is "taxed away". Wait until 2013, when the exemption drops to $1mm and the rate jumps back to 55%
posted by Mojojojo at 3:03 PM on July 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


Probably the only point of taxation policy on which I agree with the Republicans. Taxes are paid when the income is earned; they're paid when property is bought. We work not just for our own benefit, but for that of our children. The state has no business re-taxing wealth on death that people have built for the benefit of their families. It's a tax grab of the worst kind.
posted by Dasein at 3:10 PM on July 22, 2012 [4 favorites]


The state has no business re-taxing wealth on death that people have built for the benefit of their families. It's a tax grab of the worst kind.

What did the kids do to earn that money, beyond popping out from mommy's nethers? It's unearned income, pure and simple, just as is a bonus check from your employer.
posted by Thorzdad at 3:22 PM on July 22, 2012 [2 favorites]


Don't think of it as taxing the person who worked hard and died - think of it as taxing the person who's receiving a bunch of money they had to do zero work to get.
posted by 0xFCAF at 3:24 PM on July 22, 2012 [4 favorites]


The whole scheme of estate taxation seems deeply unfair. Why should you pay tax on the value of a thing from which you've received no income?

Because the receipt of it is income in kind.

(though it amounts to double-taxation, tax having been paid on that money as it was earned).

The very idea of double taxation is purest horseshit. All money is taxed multiple times.

For example, I am paid by the state of New York. All my income was taxes. Therefore, it must have been taxed. Therefore, I should not have to pay any taxes. Yay! Therefore, firms that receive my already-taxed money should not have to pay any taxes on that already-taxed money. Therefore, when those firms buy from their suppliers, those suppliers should not have to pay taxes on that already-taxed income. Etc. There isn't anyone who receives income that hasn't already been taxed before.

we don't tax the poor at 70%, because that would be unfair

No, we don't tax the poor at 70% because then they would die. Even if we hated the poor, and overall public policy in the US makes that a not-insane possibility, taxing them at 70% would just drive them extinct instead of raising revenue.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 3:31 PM on July 22, 2012 [3 favorites]


1) the IRS should place a tax lien on it. When it is sold they'll get their money. It can't be sold by law.

2) it's like how I feel about property taxes. If they think it's worth x amount, far too high by any rational market standard, I would like to say, "Fine, give me that amount and you can have it."
posted by caclwmr4 at 3:46 PM on July 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


If they think it's worth x amount, far too high by any rational market standard, I would like to say, "Fine, give me that amount and you can have it."

I think the converse is interesting — imagine if the law gave the government (or maybe anyone!) the right to purchase your property at the value you placed on the property for tax purposes. That would certainly be an incentive to not low-ball the valuations of your property — enough so that the lawmakers would almost certainly have to lower tax rates to keep the change income neutral.
posted by RichardP at 4:41 PM on July 22, 2012 [2 favorites]


I would like to say, "Fine, give me that amount and you can have it."

US minted Gold and Silver have a value printed on them. Has there not been cases where elements of the Government have used that face value as the "value" and paid that amount as the value? Robert Kahre had such a case.

imagine if the law gave the government (or maybe anyone!) the right to purchase your property at the value you placed on the property for tax purposes.

That has been done by governments. Step 1 - lower the assessed value. Step 2 - wait a year or 2. Step 3 - use local rule that they can condemn any property where the fix up costs would be more than 50% of the property value. Step 4 - condem then pay the lower tax value.
posted by rough ashlar at 4:53 PM on July 22, 2012


445supermag: "Normally, when you can't pay the taxes on a gift or inheritance, you are compelled to sell it in order to get the cash to pay the IRS (the family has sold a lot of the other artwork in the collection for just this reason)."

No, the person making the gift or the decedent's estate pays the tax, not the recipient or beneficiary.

Dasein: "(though it amounts to double-taxation, tax having been paid on that money as it was earned)"

Unless it's the hundreds of millions of Romney's carried interest that never got taxed and managed to make its way into a gift to his kids and his IRA. Perhaps in a perfect world where all dollars got taxed when they were earned, I might agree that the estate tax is unnecessary. However, there is good reason to believe that there are many very wealthy people with much income who have worked out ways to make their income not "income" and therefore not be subject to tax.

rough ashlar: "Didn't the Church Commission determine that the IRS had been used for political purposes?"

You missed the late 90s crusade against the IRS, didn't you? They were so chastened, they pretty much didn't audit rich people until Obama took office and made them start doing it again. And suddenly, taxes get paid again. Weird, that. Apparently law enforcement is useful after all.
posted by wierdo at 5:12 PM on July 22, 2012


You have the right to give your property to anyone you wish. To deny that right would be unfair.

You have that right, but you also have to pay taxes when you do so. When you are alive, you pay gift taxes*. After death, you pay estate taxes. You don't get an exemption just because you transferred assets one minute after death instead of one minute before death. All gifts of assets from one entity to another are taxed*, pre-death or post-death. The only exception is between spouses. There is no special exemption for relatives or other heirs.

*with certain limitations.
posted by JackFlash at 5:18 PM on July 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


Also of note, is that the Sonnabend collection had (and still has) great value in its wholeness. Ileana Sonnabend never sold works from her collection. One of the hallmarks of the group was that many of the pieces were works that were shown in her legendary gallery but passed over by collectors because they were too difficult to understand. So Ileana bought them, because she knew how great they were, and at the same time she was supporting her artists by buying pieces that were not selling.

She has said that when she went to an artist's studio to see if they would fit into the gallery, and she "got" the work immediately, she would never show the artist. When she went on a studio visit and could not understand what the artist was doing, was when her interest perked up.

Between her and her exHusband Leo Castelli, they showed the best artists of the time, long before anyone had a clue. Most of those artists became famous, and are now in the history books.

So, it is tragic that the entire collection could not stay together because of the taxes, which is due to poor planning, more than anything else. For one they sold the art privately rather than at auction. There would have been a big premium on any works that came out of their collection because provenance is key and coming from Sonnabend collection is about as good as it gets. So many say that they left money on the table by going privately, as there would have bidding wars to get the works. But they decided to sell quickly to meet the tax and now the collection is slightly watered down.. but not by much I am sure.

Judd Tully, the best writer about the current art market writer, imo, gives a rundown of the sale and the ins and outs of the decision, well worth a read. He found out, what was sold and to whom... mostly.

Juicy stuff.
posted by snaparapans at 5:22 PM on July 22, 2012 [4 favorites]


This story illustrates the absolute unfairness of estate tax on items rather than cash. People being forced to sell their inheritance, particularly art, in order to pay the taxes on said inheritance, is just morally wrong.
posted by corb at 7:09 PM on July 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


People being forced to sell their inheritance, particularly art, in order to pay the taxes on said inheritance, is just morally wrong.

"This 5-ton solid gold statue of a poodle is art, I tell you! The only thing my dear dad left me. You can't tax that! It would be wrong!"
posted by alexei at 7:23 PM on July 22, 2012 [2 favorites]


People being forced to sell their inheritance, particularly art, in order to pay the taxes on said inheritance, is just morally wrong.

You have a very strange concept of moral wrongs.
posted by JackFlash at 7:30 PM on July 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


I know a family that inherited a valuable impressionist drawing. They did, in fact, sell the drawing in order to pay the inheritance tax. To this day they will complain loudly about how unfair it was that they had to sell the drawing in order to pay the tax on the drawing.

One of these days I will suggest that if the drawing was really that important to them, they could have sold the vacation house, or stock, that their relative also left them, instead.
posted by R. Mutt at 7:57 PM on July 22, 2012 [3 favorites]


It's always amusing to me to see Metafilter complain so loudly about how the rich have no sympathy for the poor, but somehow as soon as you or your parents have money (or nice paintings) it's fine for the government to screw you because, you know, you're rich, so fuck you.
posted by Dasein at 8:20 PM on July 22, 2012 [2 favorites]


Dasein, I think the difference is not that we (I only speak for myself, but I'll use 'we' anyway) are setting out to be unfair to rich people, we just have a different conception of fairness than you do. It's not terribly fair that my childhood home sold for half what my parents paid for because they happened to die at an inconvenient time, but I don't think the government should have taxed it at a lower rate because of that. Similarly, it's not somehow a big "fuck you" to rich people's kids to tell them they only get most of a large estate. Seriously, boo fucking hoo. You only get a hundred million worth of art instead of $150 million.

Sometimes you have to make choices you don't want to make to pay money you owe. Such is life. In my experience, it's always been the banks making me make those choices, but I understand that the government may be the one forcing those decisions on people sometimes (as might a hospital).
posted by wierdo at 8:28 PM on July 22, 2012


What I failed to express clearly is that nobody is being screwed here.
posted by wierdo at 8:28 PM on July 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


What I failed to express clearly is that nobody is being screwed here.

Perhaps in a mercantile sense, but I for one, would love to have had a chance to see the Sonnabend collection intact. It had a value that transcends $$$ which can be appreciated in a deep way by people who are both rich and poor. The Sonnabend collection is/was valuable in that it both contains great artworks and represents a particular vision that was quite unique.

Some would say burn the crap for heat, but I think that is not the most enlightened position.

It is still a great collection with some of the cream skimmed off. Had they been better at estate planning the government would have gotten all the money due and the collection would have stayed intact. It that case nobody would have gotten screwed. The fact that it did not go that way, well chalk it up to old world thinking. Illeana Sonnabend and her heirs are about as far as you can get from wall street hedge fund types.
posted by snaparapans at 8:46 PM on July 22, 2012 [2 favorites]


I for one, would love to have had a chance to see the Sonnabend collection intact

If she'd wanted you to be able to, it would have happened. For example, by willing them and some money to a trust to create a nonprofit museum out of it.

Sonnabend chose not to let you see the collection intact. Not the government.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:13 PM on July 22, 2012


Sonnabend chose not to let you see the collection intact. Not the government.

Hardly what happened. The estate planning was extremely poor, and I am not remotely arguing that the government was to blame one bit. I do have big problems with the bad faith nastiness surrounding the case regarding Canyon, though, and I do blame the IRS for playing dirty pool on that one.

But given the size of her assets, Sonnabend’s lack of estate planning shocked several observers. “This is a prime lesson on how not to handle an estate,” says one New York–based art adviser. “They had all the time in the world to designate trusts and deploy different vehicles to keep the collection intact.” The exact numberof pieces owned by the family is not publicly known. link
You may think that was Illena Sonnabend's choice, an opinion you are entitled to, I think that it was more that they parties involved, including Illeana, never imagined that the chunks of the collection would have to be sold to settle estate tax. She loved her collection, and never sold anything our of her collection. Her old world mentality precluded her from being savvy with estate planning.

In any case, Sonnabend's choice or not, I am sad that they had to sell works, as they could have come up with other solutions.
posted by snaparapans at 9:37 PM on July 22, 2012 [2 favorites]


I support estate taxes and in fact believe they should be larger. I support the relatively generous rules that allow you to pass on millions to inheritors untaxed and even more before death as untaxed gifts.
posted by meinvt at 2:27 PM on July 22


If estate tax was something like 10%, people wouldn't go to great lengths to avoid it by creating foundations and trusts and so on. I wouldn't be surprised if the pot would be larger that way.

Money and property belongs to individuals in the U.S. It is not on loan to individuals from the government or society for the benefit of the latter.

Whether individuals deserve what they have is not for the government to judge.

The IRS position in the Sonnabend dispute could hardly be more perverse. Hopefully justice will be done to the IRS' embarrassment.
posted by knoyers at 9:56 PM on July 22, 2012 [2 favorites]


Dasein: It's always amusing to me to see Metafilter complain so loudly about how the rich have no sympathy for the poor, but somehow as soon as you or your parents have money (or nice paintings) it's fine for the government to screw you because, you know, you're rich, so fuck you.

I think the key difference is that when the poor get screwed, they don't get health care or education or they get thrown out on the street. When the ultra-rich get screwed, they have to buy a slightly smaller fifth vacation home. So the estate tax doesn't bother me, because anyone afflicted by it is already has or is gaining so much wealth that they are past the realm of experiencing any meaningful privation by losing a part of it. We can use that money to replace taxes that would need to be taken from the poor or middle-class, who would have to give up things that were more important.

That being said, the IRS is playing some dirty pool here.
posted by Mitrovarr at 10:04 PM on July 22, 2012 [2 favorites]


People being forced to sell their inheritance, particularly art, in order to pay the taxes on said inheritance, is just morally wrong.

Won't someone think of the children
of art collectors?
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 10:40 PM on July 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


Money and property belongs to individuals in the U.S. It is not on loan to individuals from the government or society for the benefit of the latter.

And that is the way it works. You keep what you own as long as you want. It is only when you transfer ownership to someone else that it is taxed. Whether you sell or gift property, the transfer of property is taxed.
posted by JackFlash at 11:47 PM on July 22, 2012


The whole moral argument is stupid. We have to have a government; that government has to get its money from somewhere. So is it less bad to take the money from someone who's working to feed their family, or to take it from a rich person who's already dead?

It blows my mind that this always comes up in the political debate, given that almost every American is far more likely to die in poverty than to pay the tax. But I suppose it's the ultimate in aspirational politics. Everyone thinks they'll be lucky enough to have a significant estate, while living off social security and medicare until the day they die.
posted by miyabo at 5:54 AM on July 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


I know this may seem entirely crazy, but some of us may think that it's wrong to tax things like art given to children even if we are unlikely to ever have significant portions of art given to us or to give significant portions of art to our children. Morality doesn't have to be dictated by self interest.
posted by corb at 8:30 AM on July 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


some of us may think that it's wrong to tax things like art given to children

Much as I love and value art, it isn't obvious to me why a gift of art should be exempt from taxation in a way that a gift of, say, real estate isn't. A childhood house willed to me may have more more sentimental value than a painting of equal cash value, but the house isn't exempt from taxation just because it's near and dear to my heart.

We sold my father's fine collection of antiques because, basically, we couldn't afford to keep it together. We kept a few. Them's the breaks sometimes.

I know a family that inherited a valuable impressionist drawing. They did, in fact, sell the drawing in order to pay the inheritance tax. To this day they will complain loudly about how unfair it was that they had to sell the drawing in order to pay the tax on the drawing.

They never considered giving it to a museum? I imagine that a deal could've been structured whereby the write-off more or less compensated for the debt incurred plus the goodwill of said museum and an opportunity to visit.
posted by octobersurprise at 1:08 PM on July 23, 2012


I imagine that a deal could've been structured whereby the write-off more or less compensated for the debt incurred plus the goodwill of said museum and an opportunity to visit.

Your imagination is very imaginative, but more fantasy than anything about how donations work to offset tax due. As a reality based example we can go to the topic at hand: the Sonnabend Estate's tax assessed by IRS on Raushenberg's Canyon:
Then, given their income and the limits on deductions, he said, they would be able to deduct only a small part of the work’s value each year. Mr. Lerner estimated that it would take about 75 years for them to absorb the deduction.

“So my clients would have to live to 140 or so,” he said. link
NO ONE from Sonnebend is arguing against estate taxes, they paid the max and felt good about it as they are not Republicans or Libertarians but solid Democrats.
posted by snaparapans at 2:12 PM on July 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


How does the quote go
"Everything is worth what its purchaser will pay for it"

Since it can't be sold. It is worth nothing. Since it can't be sold and has never been sold how can the government (who wants the tax dollars) come up with a reasonable figure?

A large part of its possible value is that it can't be sold. Saying it is worth far more than any of the artist's other work is just silly.

Find. Let the individual appraiser pay the money he says it is worth. Give the taxes on that to the government.


I know a family that inherited a valuable impressionist drawing. They did, in fact, sell the drawing in order to pay the inheritance tax. To this day they will complain loudly about how unfair it was that they had to sell the drawing in order to pay the tax on the drawing.

How unfair is it that their particular drawing worth so much that they had to sell it to pay taxes on it when another drawing of equal skill/talent is worthless?


People being forced to sell their inheritance, particularly art, in order to pay the taxes on said inheritance, is just morally wrong.

Obviously art should not be treated any different than any other inheritance. If it was, than all the wealthy would have to do is declare their cash, stocks, jewelry, land, etc is all art works.
posted by 2manyusernames at 4:12 PM on July 23, 2012


Your imagination is very imaginative

My imagination certainly is very imaginative, but in this instance I was refering to the "valuable Impressionist drawing" in the passage I quoted, not to the Sonnabend pieces. If that was unclear to you then I apologize. Anyway, I was speculating on a piece of art that I know nothing about and I'm not even as expert as you on tax law. But I know that donations can produce (or have produced in the recent past) some pretty significant tax deductions because I've witnessed such.
posted by octobersurprise at 5:54 PM on July 23, 2012


octobersurprise : I know what you were referring to. Just got a little annoyed because the thread got diverted and inferred guilt by association that Sonnabend and her heirs were an example of the rich exploiting the system. As to your example, the tax code is not so simple when it comes to donating works. It is nothing near the idea that a rich person or someone that inherits, can donate a work worth $10 million to a museum and shield themselves from $10mil of taxes, that is just not how it works. Most of the time, if planning has not been the greatest, selling on the open market is the most efficient way to pay estate tax. In general, compared to museum donations, other tax scams that the rich take advantage of are much more profitable. From my point of view, what Illeana gave to the world was much more than the money she gained from it. IOW she and her heirs deserve every penny that was earned. She was a generous and fair person, not someone out to exploit and get rich while doing it.

I do think that the Sonnabend estate could have kept the collection intact had they done some planning several years ago, and donating to museums would not have been part of that formula.
posted by snaparapans at 6:50 PM on July 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


Well, thanks for the tips. What a shame you weren't there to advise Ms. Sonnabend.
posted by octobersurprise at 7:43 PM on July 23, 2012


What a shame you weren't there to advise Ms. Sonnabend. I was there, and knew her over the years, always said hello and had a little chat, but IANAL and it would have never occurred to me to discuss her business, plans for her collection, last will and testament, or any of her financial dealings. My relationship with her was strictly about the art, what she had on her walls and on the rare occasion what I was up to in the studio. Sometimes I would bump into her at Carnegie Hall and discuss the performance during intermission. I had a great admiration for what she did, and look forward to seeing a museum show of her collection.
posted by snaparapans at 10:18 PM on July 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


Much as I love and value art, it isn't obvious to me why a gift of art should be exempt from taxation in a way that a gift of, say, real estate isn't. A childhood house willed to me may have more more sentimental value than a painting of equal cash value, but the house isn't exempt from taxation just because it's near and dear to my heart.

I personally don't believe in taxing the transfer of real property, whether as a gift or as an estate tax. So I agree with you, but in a slightly different direction. I don't think that childhood house should be taxed either. I think you should only be taxed on actual cash coming to you, so that you don't get forced into these situations where you have to sell the sentimental objects in order to get cash to pay the tax on them. Particularly because, as others have noted, the appraisal value of a thing is often not what the person is able to sell the item for. So a situation could in fact result where a high appraisal, at, say, 55% estate tax (beginning 2013) means that if someone has to sell quickly to pay the tax, they may realize only 20% of the original value of the piece - or less, if we're talking about property in today's housing market, for example. Particularly as they can't exactly take the time to make sure something's sold close to market value - they have to take a loss to get it sold quickly.

But I think it's particularly bad in terms of art objects. As someone has noted - a painting of exactly equal talent, skill, age, etc may sell for millions, while another sells for thousands. Yet the two are treated very differently, even though to the person possessing them, they may simply be equal pieces of wonderful art.
posted by corb at 1:33 AM on July 24, 2012


I personally don't believe in taxing the transfer of real property ... So I agree with you, but in a slightly different direction.

What kind of happy bullshit is this? If you are opposed even to the concept of inheritance taxes, then you don't agree with me at all. Do you share Mitt Romney's habitual disingenuity as well as his approach to taxation?

I think you should only be taxed on actual cash coming to you

Everyone who receives an inheritance in packages of hundred dollar bills will put a stop to that practice right now, I'm sure.
posted by octobersurprise at 6:23 AM on July 24, 2012


This is an interesting case, and I'm inclined to agree with the people who are saying that the $0 valuation is fair for now, and let them pay the (lesser) capital gains tax if it ever does become legal to sell. This is high profile enough that it wouldn't happen under the IRS's radar, and an unusual enough situation that it won't set any loophole creating precedents.

As to the question of inheritance taxes in general, I'm in favor of them, and agree that physical assets should be just as taxable as cash (otherwise everyone will just spend all their cash on durable physical assets before death, and will those to their heirs instead). But I do wonder about things like family farms and small businesses. It's one thing to sell a painting to pay the taxes on the painting -- a shame, maybe, but the harm done is pretty abstract. It's another thing to sell your family farm to pay the taxes on the farm. If the farm was your livelihood, then that means you lose your job, really, not just an asset with a one-time sale value. Same for family businesses. I think a fair way to handle that situation would be to make the tax payble on some kind of long-term payment plan.

I have no idea of the IRS already allows that, but if they did, maybe people could keep more art works and so on in the family as well...
posted by OnceUponATime at 2:14 PM on July 31, 2012


There are significant protections built into the law for family farms and small businesses. So much so that despite much effort nobody has been able to find an actual instance of a family farm being sold to pay inheritance taxes in the last several years.

Family businesses do often close or get sold after the owner dies. It's not because of tax, but because the kids don't actually want to be a grocer in a town of 500 people or live in a cornfield in the middle of Iowa or be a plumber or whatever. It happens. Blaming it on the government is something the right wing does because they blame everything on the government.
posted by wierdo at 2:22 PM on July 31, 2012


What kind of happy bullshit is this? If you are opposed even to the concept of inheritance taxes, then you don't agree with me at all. Do you share Mitt Romney's habitual disingenuity as well as his approach to taxation?

It's possible to disagree with someone on deeply held political beliefs, but agree with them on a definition or a particular point. I agreed that a dearly loved childhood home may have more sentimental value than a painting, no matter what the cash value. However, we differ on whether or not estate taxes are important tools or highway robbery. It doesn't mean I'm disingenuous because I have the ability to disagree in some places and agree in others.

There are significant protections built into the law for family farms and small businesses. So much so that despite much effort nobody has been able to find an actual instance of a family farm being sold to pay inheritance taxes in the last several years.

I see this quoted, but am dubious as to what this means, and if people have been looking. I knew someone whose family farm needed to be sold to pay the estate taxes on the place. You could say it wasn't a fully functional farm because it hadn't been doing well in years, but it was absolutely still a family farm.
posted by corb at 1:47 PM on August 1, 2012


How many farms are hit by the estate tax? Very few. Even the WSJ agrees. And the farm (or small business) has to be worth more than $5 million, at which point either you're got quite a spread or you're farming in the middle of Manhattan. Just in terms of land value, even if you're farming in Rhode Island, that puts you at 368 acres. At the average price per acre of agricultural land in the U.S., $2140, you need more than 2300 acres to crack $5 million in land value. Net income per acre on good corn land is about $300 at present.

From the WaPo:
"With the [2005] exemption level of $1.5 million, the CBO analysis found, only 300 farm estates in 2000 would have owed any tax at all -- and of those, just 27 would have a tax bill in excess of their liquid assets. At the even more generous exemption scheduled to take effect in 2009, $3.5 million, the ranks of those potentially hit hard by the tax would have dwindled even further; 65 farm estates would owe taxes and 13 would not have enough cash to cover the bill. "
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 4:41 PM on August 1, 2012


Very few is a nonzero answer. I'll even agree that that's certainly a real possibility, that very few are affected by it - but there certainly are some each year. According to the Washington Post's analysis, 138 farms in 2000 were hit by tax assessments higher than their liquid assets could afford to pay. I actually disagree with the way that they analyzed, because it only affects people identified as farmers and owners of small businesses when they filed their estate tax returns, which means people currently operating said business or farm at the time of their tax filing. But even going with that, that's a fairly significant non-zero answer, which really contradicts the kind of language that people are using about never has this happened.

And there are certainly people in the world (myself included) who think this kind of thing is /never/ okay, even if it only happens to a few people.

An important thing to remember also is that the tax valuation isn't just at the value of the land, but also on improvements - and the average on corn land is one thing, but what about a vinyard, ranch, or grove? Taxes are generally assessed at value of the land, buildings, and improvements. A casual google reveals this 891 acre ranch for 6 mil, or this 206-acre piece of land at 6.6 mil, valued at over 30,000$ an acre. So the five million dollar bar sounds really impressive, but it turns out not to really be such a monstrously high bar as people would have it.
posted by corb at 9:10 AM on August 3, 2012


"And there are certainly people in the world (myself included) who think this kind of thing is /never/ okay, even if it only happens to a few people."

Taxation is never okay, or penalizing people who fail to adequately plan to pay their tax bills is never okay?
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:18 AM on August 3, 2012


Estate taxation of real rather than liquid assets, that forces people to sell said real assets is never okay. I don't think it's a matter of failing to adequately plan to pay their tax bills, because said tax bills are extreme and unsustainable - over half the value of the land is intensely never okay.

I'll also go further and say that I believe estate taxation is also not okay, but I understand that's a bigger step.
posted by corb at 10:00 AM on August 3, 2012


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