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The Wall Street Journal reports today on a temporary suspension of the estate tax (what conservatives call the “death tax”), which will go into effect on January 1, 2010.  The lapse dates back to the bundle of tax cuts passed under the Bush Administration in 2001:

Congress raised estate-tax exemptions, culminating with the tax’s disappearance next year. However, due to budget constraints, lawmakers didn’t make the change permanent. So the estate tax is due to come back to life in 2011–at a higher rate and lower exemption.

The WSJ piece is titled “Rich Cling to Life to Beat Tax Man,” and its interviews demonstrate, once again, that the rich really are different: They’re really creepy. It seems quite a few of them are making end-of-life decisions based on how it will affect their inheritance taxes.

“I have two clients on life support, and the families are struggling with whether to continue heroic measures for a few more days,” says Joshua Rubenstein, a lawyer with Katten Muchin Rosenman LLP in New York. “Do they want to live for the rest of their lives having made serious medical decisions based on estate-tax law?”…

To make it easier on their heirs, some clients are putting provisions into their health-care proxies allowing whoever makes end-of-life medical decisions to consider changes in estate-tax law. “We have done this at least a dozen times, and have gotten more calls recently,” says Andrew Katzenstein, a lawyer with Proskauer Rose LLP in Los Angeles.

The article focuses on people who are trying to keep their so-called loved ones alive until 2010 begins. But you can just as easily imagine all the  greedy bastards out there who are hoping their healthy old relatives will get really sick, really soon, so they can kick off before the year ends.

On the Atlantic’s business blog today, Derek Thompson comments on the political implications of the year-long estate tax suspension. He highlights the hypocrisy of Republican policymaking, which insists upon deficit reduction while simultaneously serving the interests of wealthy people like these, whose riches have to be wrested from their cold, dead hands:

I’ll be interested to watch how both parties deal with the tax for 2011. Naturally, Republicans are united against any action that involves not destroying the death tax forever. That includes Sen. Judd Gregg, the moderate Republican and co-producer of the fantastical commission to reduce the deficit, who hasconsistently supported every effort to whittle away the estate tax.

Obviously, one way to reduce the deficit is to reduce spending. But another way is to raise taxes — or at least to not kill the taxes that we already have in place. The Lincoln-Kyl bill in the Senate to cut estate taxes after the one-year hiccup would cost almost $250 billion over 10 years. That is, as they say, real money, and it’s hard for me to imagine how this tax cut would spur economic growth, since inheritance is passive. If we’re going to consider spending over the baseline part of PAYGO, we should do the same for government receipts below the baseline. So would Republicans plan to make up that money?

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