Death, taxes and the Ig Nobel Awards


When Joel Slemrod of the University of Michigan won his Ig Nobel Award in 2001, part of the prize criteria was that the research involved "cannot, or should not, be reproduced". Luckily for Slemrod, that's since been changed to "first make people laugh, and then make them think".

See, Slemrod and partner Wojciech Kopczuk of Columbia University are the researchers who found evidence that the very rich die in greater numbers just before estate taxes are scheduled to increase—or just after the taxes have been reduced. Since he published, Australian and Swedish researchers have replicated his results. And now, he says, it appears the United States is about set up a grand natural experiment with elderly rich people as guinea pigs.

As of January 1 of this year, the U.S. estate tax has been abolished for the year 2010, and is scheduled to be reinstated in 2011 with rates as high as 55%. If our findings (and those of our colleagues in Australia and Sweden) are right, there some would be "moved" from the end of 2009 to the beginning of 2010, as some rich folks hold on to bequeath their assets tax-free. Of course, the really morbid stuff will happen at the end of this year, when dying in December of 2010 will incur no estate tax, but dying beginning in January 1, 2011 can trigger a tax liability equal to more than half the taxable estate. It's being called the "Throw Momma from the Train" tax provision.