OECD calls for stronger inheritance tax regime to address inequality

OECD calls for stronger inheritance tax regime to address inequality

Inheritance, estate and gift taxes could play a stronger role in addressing inequality and improving public finances, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

Inheritance taxation can be an important instrument to address inequality, particularly in the current context of persistently high wealth inequality and new pressures on public finances linked to the Covid-19 pandemic, the organisation said in a new report.

Inheritance Taxation in OECD Countries highlights the high degree of wealth concentration in OECD countries as well as the unequal distribution of wealth transfers, which further reinforces inequality. On average, the inheritances and gifts reported by the wealthiest households (top 20 per cent) are close to 50 times higher than those reported by the poorest households (bottom 20 per cent).

The report points out that inheritance taxes – particularly those that target relatively high levels of wealth transfers – can reduce wealth concentration and enhance equality of opportunity. It also notes that inheritance taxes have generally been found to generate lower efficiency costs than other taxes on the wealthy, and to be easier to assess and collect than other forms of wealth taxation.

A majority of OECD countries currently levy inheritance or estate taxes – 24 in total. However, these taxes typically raise very little revenue. Today, only 0.5 per cent of total tax revenues are sourced from inheritance, estate and gift taxes on average across the countries that levy them.

The report underlines the variation in inheritance tax regimes across countries. The level of wealth that parents can transfer to their children tax-free ranges from close to $17,000 in Belgium (Brussels-Capital region) to more than $11 million in the US. Tax rates also differ. While a majority of countries apply progressive tax rates, one-third apply flat rates, and tax rate levels vary widely.

The report proposes a range of reform options to enhance the revenue potential, efficiency and fairness of inheritance, estate and gift taxes, while noting that reforms will depend on country-specific circumstances.

It finds arguments in favour of an inheritance tax levied on the value of the assets that beneficiaries receive, with an exemption for low-value inheritances. Levying an inheritance tax on a lifetime basis, on the overall amount of wealth received by beneficiaries over their lifetime through both gifts and inheritances, would be particularly equitable and reduce avoidance opportunities, but could increase administrative and compliance costs.

Pascal Saint-Amans, director of the OECD Centre for Tax Policy and Administration, said: “While a majority of OECD countries levy inheritance and estate taxes, they play a more limited role than they could in raising revenue and addressing inequalities, because of the way they have been designed.

“There are strong arguments for making greater use of inheritance taxes, but better design will be needed if these taxes are to achieve their objectives.”

He added: “Inheritance taxation is not a silver bullet, however. Other reforms, particularly in relation to the taxation of personal capital income and capital gains, are key to ensuring that tax systems help reduce inequality.

“The OECD will be undertaking new work in that area, in particular as the progress made on international tax transparency and the exchange of information is giving countries a unique opportunity to revisit personal capital taxation.”

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