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International tax law distinguishes between an estate tax and an inheritance tax—an estate tax is assessed on the assets of the deceased, while an inheritance tax is assessed on the legacies received by the estate's beneficiaries. However, this distinction is not always observed; for example, the UK's "inheritance tax" is a tax on the assets of the deceased, and strictly speaking is therefore an estate tax.
For historical reasons, the term death duty is still used colloquially (though not legally) in the UK and some Commonwealth countries.
Economic effects of inheritance taxes
The vision of the inheritance itself influences the decision-making both of the potential heirs and of the person supposed to die. The question of decision-making gets from an economist's point of view far more complicated when an inheritance tax is imposed. In terms of behavioral economics, the structure of a tax system affects not only individuals' behavior when trading in the market, but also their preferences regarding the amount of money or property saved as a future subject of inheritance.
An obvious direct effect of inheritance taxes is a decrease in the share of an estate that would otherwise go to the heirs. Together with that, such a tax reduces the amount which could have been raised by other forms of taxes. From that, we can easily conclude that the inheritance tax enforces heirs to stay in the labor market, as the inheritance might not have provided them with a wealth of such a range that they could have afforded to leave the labor market.
Furthermore, if inherited wealth is unanticipated, the heir learns that his lifetime wealth is higher than previously thought. Therefore inheritance affects the heir's marginal utility of wealth negatively and thus might cause a drop in his labor supply. But this wealth effect on the labor supply of the heirs plays an important role in the optimal level of the inheritance tax since it implies a fiscal externality: inheritance taxes increase earnings of the heirs which has a positive effect on government revenue if heirs face a positive marginal tax rate. In other words, the taxation of bequests can have a positive impact on the labor supply of heirs through wealth effects. One reason for this is that inheritances can be (imperfectly) anticipated and therefore already shape labor earnings before receipt.
From the other point of view, inheritance taxes may considerably influence the distribution of capital. Remember Adam Smith in 1776 in The Wealth of Nations arguing that competition would lead the individual in the pursuit of his or her private interests (profits) to pursue the public interest, as if by an invisible hand:
But the annual revenue of every society is always precisely equal to the exchangeable value of the whole annual produce of its industry, or rather is precisely the same thing with that exchangeable value. As every individual, therefore, endeavours as much as he can both to employ his capital in the support of domestic industry, and so to direct that industry that its produce may be of the greatest value, every individual necessarily labours to render the annual revenue of the society as great as he can. He generally, indeed, neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it. By preferring the support of domestic to that of foreign industry, he intends only his own security; and by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for the society that it was not part of it. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it.
According to his claim, to secure a maximum product, capital should be in control of those who can make the best use of it. That determines the inheritance tax to promote inefficiency, or at least not to guarantee efficiency. Nevertheless, there is neither any assuring that the new owners of the capital acquired by inheritance are best qualified to use it. There still exists an argument offering a solution to this problem, as professor Pigou states the case as follows:
Income depends, not on capacity alone, but on a combination of capacity and inherited property, and inherited property is not distributed in proportion to capacity but is concentrated upon a small number of people, not selected in accordance with their own or even, in many families, their parents' capacity, but owing their good fortunes, perhaps to their being only sons or daughters, perhaps to some other 'accident'.
Critics of the inheritance tax are still aware of the impact of the levy on savings, especially if tax rates are high. The whole fund of saved capital is a result of several psychological forces, whose answers to the changes in conditions are independent of each other. The behavior of those who are saving against risks or against being worse off, those who are saving to be better off, and those who are saving without effort or self/sacrifice out of superfluity, will be very different. Probably, most of the working class is prompted to save by the belief that they themselves will enjoy the results of their saving, and therefore what happens to the savings after their death is not of a great importance to them. Coming back to the theory of an invisible hand, there are, as well, those endowed with an accumulated capital, without the intention of saving, resulting from the added power that wealth gives them in the market. Nevertheless, for people in general, the influence of such taxes upon their economic activities, like saving, might not be significant as it is a form of tax which is paid in the future. Then there is always the possibility that changes in the law might cause that the tax will never be paid at all. In correlation with that Josiah Stamp states that death duties discourage accumulation somewhat less than annual taxes. Irrespective of motivation, if society aims to increase its production, imposing the tax could have a negative impact, until it seems that maintaining the level of consumption is as important as increasing the supply of capital.
But then, what is considered is whether to raise revenue from a consumption tax or an inheritance tax. The inheritance tax among the wealthier classes will reduce the savings and the resultant loss of capital will not be substituted with increased savings of the poor, who will, instead, increase their consumption of tax-free goods. The inheritance tax is objectionable then, not because it is a tax nominally laid on capital, nor because it reduces the motive to save but because, as compared with consumption taxes, it reduces the saving capacity of the wealthier classes.
Varieties of inheritance and estate taxes
- Belgium, droits de succession or erfbelasting (Inheritance tax). Collected at the federal level but distributed to the regional level.
- Bermuda: stamp duty
- Brazil: Imposto sobre Transmissão "Causa Mortis" e Doação de Quaisquer Bens ou Direitos (Tax on Causa Mortis Transmission and as Donation of any Property and Rights). Collected at the state level. Brazilian States can charge progressive rates for the ITCMD, increasing the rate according to the amount donated or inherited, however, the Brazilian Senate limited the maximum rate to 8%.
- Czech Republic: daň dědická (Inheritance tax)
- Denmark: Boafgift (estate duty). Collected at state level. Different rates depending on the relation to the deceased. Spouse: 0%. Children: 15%. Other relatives: 15% of the estate sum + additional 25% of the individual sum. The estate duty is calculated on the sum of the estate after deducting a free allowance on the estate (289,000 DKK in 2018).
- Finland: perintövero (Finnish) or arvsskatt (Swedish) (Inheritance tax) is a state tax. Inheritance to the close family is tax free up to the worth of 20 000 €, and increasing from there via several steps (for instance, being 13% for 60 000 € - 200 000 €) to the maximum of 19% that must be paid for the portion of the inheritance that exceeds one million euros. Taxation is more severe in case of remote relatives or those with no family connection at all (19-33%).
- France: droits de succession (Inheritance tax)
- Germany: Erbschaftsteuer (Inheritance tax). Smaller bequests are exempt, i.e., €20,000–€500,000 depending on the family relation between the deceased and the beneficiary. Bequests larger than these values are taxed from 7% to 50%, depending on the family relationship between the deceased and the beneficiary and the size of the taxable amount 
- Ghana: Inheritance tax on intangible assets
- Ireland: Inheritance tax (Cáin Oidhreachta)
- Italy: tassa di successione (Inheritance tax). Abolished in 2001 and reestablished in 2006. €1,000,000 exemption on a bequest to a spouse or child, and a maximum rate of 8%.
- Japan: souzokuzei 相続税 (Inheritance tax) paid as a national tax (between 10 and 55% after an exemption of ¥30 million + ¥6 million per heir is deducted from the estate) 
- Korea: sangsoksae (inheritance tax) paid as a national tax (between 10 and 50% taxes on inheritance when deceased, and gift taxes are also taxable on property and/or stock received by heir or child). After Samsung Group titan Lee Kun Hee chairman's death in year 2020, his heirs are facing a $10 billion inheritance tax bill. (50% taxable amount)
- Netherlands: Successierecht (Inheritance tax) NB. as per 1 January 2010 Successierecht has been abolished for the erfbelasting regime, and is replaced with Erfbelasting with rates from 10% to 40% for brackets by amounts and separation. Sizeable exemptions are given based on separation. As an example, in 2019, these exemptions roughly equalled EUR 651k for partners, EUR 20k for children, EUR 2k for grandchildren and 40k for parents.
- Switzerland has no national inheritance tax. Some cantons impose estate taxes or inheritance taxes.
- United Kingdom: see inheritance tax (United Kingdom) (actually an estate tax)
- United States: see estate tax in the United States
- Spain: Impuesto sobre Sucesiones (Inheritance Tax). The amendment of Spanish law has been put into practice, in compliance with the European Court ruling of September 3 of last year, and on December 31, 2014 Order HAP/2488/2014, of December 29, was published in the Official State Bulletin, which approves the Inheritance and Gift Tax self-assessment forms 650, 651, and establishes the place, form and term for its submission.
Some jurisdictions formerly had estate or inheritance taxes, but have abolished them:
- Australia abolished the federal estate tax in 1979, but capital gains tax is levied on the sale of an asset or its transfer of ownership and if this occurs upon the death of the owner it constitutes a "crystalising action", and capital gains tax becomes assessable.
- Austria abolished the Erbschaftssteuer in 2008. This tax had some of the features of the gift tax, which was abolished at the same time
- Canada: abolished inheritance tax in 1972. However, capital gains are 50% taxable and added to all other income of the deceased on their final return.
- Hong Kong: abolished estate duty in 2006 for all deaths occurring on or after 11 February 2006. (See Estate Duty Ordinance Cap.111)
- India: had an estate tax from 1953 to 1985
- Israel: abolished inheritance tax in 1981, but inherited assets are subject to a 20% to 45% capital gains tax upon their sale
- Kenya: abolished estate duty tax by virtue of the Estate Duty (Abolition) Act No. 10 of 1982
- New Zealand abolished estate duty in 1992
- Norway: abolished inheritance tax in 2014
- Russia "abolished" "inheritance tax" in 2006, but have "fee" with rates of 0,3% but no more than 100 000 rubles and 0,6% but no more than 1 000 000 rubles.
- Singapore: abolished estate tax in 2008, for deaths occurring on or after 15 February 2008.
- Sweden: a unanimous riksdag abolished the inheritance tax in 2004. A retroactive decision exempted deaths during late December 2004 from inheritance tax, due to the many Swedish casualties in the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake.
- Slovak Republic
Some jurisdictions have never levied any form of tax in the event of death:
Inheritance tax was introduced with effect from 18 March 1986.
History (succession duty)
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Succession duty, in the English fiscal system, is "a tax placed on the gratuitous acquisition of property which passes on the death of any person, by means of a transfer from one person (called the predecessor) to another person (called the successor)". In order properly to understand the present state of the English law it is necessary to describe briefly the state of affairs prior to the Finance Act 1894 — an act which effected a considerable change in the duties payable and in the mode of assessment of those duties.
The Succession Duty Act 1853 was the principal act that first imposed a succession duty in England. By that act a duty varying from 1% to 10% according to the degree of consanguinity between the predecessor and successor was imposed upon every succession which was defined as "every past or future disposition of property by reason whereof any person has or shall become beneficially entitled to any property, or the income thereof, upon the death of any person dying after the time appointed for the commencement of this act, either immediately or after any interval, either certainly or contingently, and either originally or by way of substitutive limitation and every devolution by law of any beneficial interest in property, or the income thereof, upon the death of any person dying after the time appointed for the commencement of this act to any other person in possession or expectancy". The property which is liable to pay the duty is in realty or leasehold estate in the UK and personalty—not subject to legacy duty—which the beneficiary claims by virtue of English, Scottish, or Irish law. Personalty in England bequeathed by a person domiciled abroad is not subject to succession duty. Successions of a husband or a wife, successions where the principal value is under £100, and individual successions under £20, are exempt from duty. Leasehold property and personalty directed to be converted into real estate are liable to succession, not to legacy duty.
Special provision is made for the collection of duty in the cases of joint tenants and where the successor is also the predecessor. The duty is a first charge on property, but if the property be parted with before the duty is paid the liability of the successor is transferred to the alienee. It is, therefore, usual in requisitions on title before conveyance, to demand for the protection of the purchaser the production of receipts for succession duty, as such receipts are an effectual protection notwithstanding any suppression or misstatement in the account on the footing of which the duty was assessed or any insufficiency of such assessment. The duty is by this act directed to be assessed as follows: on personal property, if the successor takes a limited estate, the duty is assessed on the principal value of the annuity or yearly income estimated according to the period during which he is entitled to receive the annuity or yearly income, and the duty is payable in four yearly installments free from interest. If the successor takes absolutely he pays in a lump-sum duty on the principal value. On real property the duty is payable in eight half-yearly installments without interest on the capital value of an annuity equal to the annual value of the property. Various minor changes were made. The Customs and Inland Revenue Act 1881 exempted personal estates under 300. The Customs and Inland Revenue Act 1888 charged an additional 1% on successions already paying 1% and an additional 11% on successions paying more than 1%. By the Customs and Inland Revenue Act 1889, an additional duty of 1% called an "estate duty" was payable on successions over 10,000.
The Finance Acts 1894 and 1909 effected large changes in the duties payable on death. As regards the succession duties they enacted that payment of the estate duties thereby created should include payment of the additional duties mentioned above. Estates under £1,000 (£2,000 in the case of widow or child of deceased) are exempted from payment of any succession duties. The succession duty payable under the Succession Duty Act 1853 was in all cases to be calculated according to the principal value of the property, i.e., its selling value, and though still payable by installments interest at 3% is chargeable. The additional succession duties are still payable in cases where the estate duty is not charged, but such cases are of small importance and in practice are not as a rule charged.
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The United States imposed a succession duty by the War Revenue Act of 1898 on all legacies or distributive shares of personal property exceeding $10,000 (worth $308,902 in 2020 dollars). This was a tax on the privilege of succession, and devises and land distributions of land were unaffected. The duty ran from 75 cents on the $100 to $5 on the $100, if the legacy or share in question did not exceed $25,000. On those over that value, the rate was multiplied 11 times on estates up to $100,000, twofold on those from $100,000 to $200,000, 21 times on those from $500,000 to a $1 million, and threefold for those exceeding a million. This statute was upheld as constitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Many of the states also impose succession duties, or transfer taxes; generally, however, on collateral and remote successions; sometimes progressive, according to the amount of the succession. The state duties generally touch real estate successions as well as those to personal property. If a citizen of state A owns registered bonds of a corporation chartered by state B, which he has put for safe keeping in a deposit vault in state C, his estate may thus have to pay four succession taxes, one to state A, to which he belongs and which, by legal fiction, is the seat of all his personal property; one to state B, for permitting the transfer of the bonds to the legatees on the books of the corporation; one to state C, for allowing them to be removed from the deposit vault for that purpose; and one to the United States.
The different U.S. states all have other regulations regarding inheritance tax:
- Louisiana: abolished inheritance tax in 2008, for deaths occurring on or after 1 July 2004
- New Hampshire: abolished state inheritance tax in 2003; abolished surcharge on federal estate tax in 2005
- Utah: abolished inheritance tax in 2005
- Indiana: abolished the state inheritance on December 31, 2012
- Iowa: Inheritance is exempt if passed to a surviving spouse, parents, or grandparents, or to children, grandchildren, or other "lineal" descendants. Other recipients are subject to inheritance tax, with rates varying depending on the relationship of the recipient to the deceased.
- Kentucky: The inheritance tax is a tax on a beneficiary's right to receive property from a decedent's estate. It is imposed as a percentage of the amount transferred to the beneficiary:
- Transfers to "Class A" relatives (spouses, parents, children, grandchildren, and siblings) are exempt
- Transfers to "Class B" relatives (nieces, nephews, daughters-in-law, sons-in-law, aunts, uncles, and great-grandchildren) are taxable
- Transfers to "Class C" recipients (all other persons) are taxable at a higher rate. Kentucky imposes an estate tax in addition to its inheritance tax.
- New Jersey: New Jersey law puts inheritors into different groups, based on their family relationship to the deceased person:
- Class A beneficiaries are exempt from the inheritance tax. They includes the deceased person's spouse, domestic partner, or civil union partner parent, grandparent, child (biological, adopted, or mutually acknowledged), stepchild (but not stepgrandchild or great-stepgrandchild), grandchild or other lineal descendant of a child
- Class B was deleted when New Jersey law changed
- Class C includes the deceased person's: brother or sister, spouse or civil union partner of the deceased person's child, surviving spouse or civil union partner of the deceased person's child. The first $25,000 inherited by someone in Class C is not taxed. On amounts exceeding $25,000, the tax rates are: 11% on the next $1,075,000, 13% on the next $300,000, 14% on the next $300,000, and 16% for anything over $1,700,000
- Class D includes everyone else. There is no special exemption amount, and the applicable tax rates are: 15% on the first $700,000, and 16% on anything over $700,000
- Class E includes the State of New Jersey or any of its political subdivisions for public or charitable purposes, an educational institution, church, hospital, orphan asylum, public library, and other nonprofits. These beneficiaries are exempt from inheritance tax.
- Oklahoma
- Pennsylvania: Inheritance tax is a flat tax on the value of the decedent's taxable estate as of the date of death, less allowable funeral and administrative expenses and debts of the decedent. Pennsylvania does not allow the six-month-after-date-of-death alternate valuation method that is available at the federal level. Transfers to spouses are exempt; transfers to grandparents, parents, or lineal descendants are taxed at 4.5%. Transfers to siblings are taxed at 12%. Transfers to any other persons are taxed at 15%. Some assets are exempted, including life insurance proceeds. The inheritance tax is imposed on both residents and nonresidents who owned real estate and tangible personal property in Pennsylvania at the time of their death. The Pennsylvania Inheritance Tax Return (Form Rev-1500) must be filed within nine months of the date of death.
Other taxation applied to inheritance
In some jurisdictions, when assets are transferred by inheritance, any unrealized increase in asset value is subject to capital gains tax, payable immediately. This is the case in Canada, which has no inheritance tax.
When a jurisdiction has both capital gains tax and inheritance tax, inheritances are generally exempt from capital gains tax.
In some jurisdictions, like Austria, death gives rise to the local equivalent of gift tax. This was the UK model before the Inheritance Tax in 1986 was introduced, when estates were charged to a form of gift tax called Capital Transfer Tax. Where a jurisdiction has both gift tax and inheritance tax, it is usual to exempt inheritances from gift tax. Also, it is common for inheritance taxes to share some features of gift taxes, by taxing some transfers which happen during the lifetime of the giver rather than on death. The UK, for example, subjects "lifetime chargeable transfers" (usually gifts to trusts) to inheritance tax.
No inheritance tax was recorded for the Roman Republic, despite abundant evidence for testamentary law. The vicesima hereditatium ("twentieth of inheritance") was levied by Rome's first emperor, Augustus, in the last decade of his reign. The 5% tax applied only to inheritances received through a will, and close relatives were exempt from paying it, including the deceased's grandparents, parents, children, grandchildren, and siblings. The question of whether a spouse was exempt was complicated—from the late Republic on, husbands and wives kept their own property scrupulously separate, since a Roman woman remained part of her birth family and not under the legal control of her husband. Roman social values on marital devotion probably exempted a spouse. Estates below a certain value were also exempt from the tax, according to one source, but other evidence indicates that this was only the case in the early years of Trajan's reign.
Tax revenues went into a fund to pay military retirement benefits (aerarium militare), along with those from a new sales tax (centesima rerum venalium), a 1% tax on goods sold at auction. The inheritance tax is extensively documented in sources pertaining to Roman law, inscriptions, and papyri. It was one of three major indirect taxes levied on Roman citizens in the provinces of the Empire.
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- Gardner, "Liability to Inheritance Tax," pp. 205, 211.
- Gardner, "Liability to Inheritance Tax," p. 214; see further Bruce W. Frier and Thomas A.J. McGinn, A Casebook on Roman Family Law (Oxford University Press, 2004), pp. 19–20, and Beryl Rawson, "The Roman Family in Italy" (Oxford University Press, 1999), p. 15–18.
- Gardner, "Liability to Inheritance Tax," p. 214.
- Cassius Dio 55.25.5.
- Gardner, "Liability to Inheritance Tax," p. 205.
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- Gardner, "Liability to Inheritance Tax," p. 205. A 2nd-century AD epitaph for a Roman of equestrian rank, for instance, lists procurator of the 5 percent inheritance tax on his career résumé (CIL 10.482).
- Burton, "Government and the Provinces," p. 428.