Harlyn Riekena worried that his success would cost him when he died. Thirty-seven years ago he quit teaching to farm and over the years bought more and more of the rich black soil here in central Iowa. Now he and his wife, Karen, own 950 gently rolling acres planted in soybeans and corn.
The farmland alone is worth more than $2.5 million, and so Mr. Riekena, 61, fretted that estate taxes would take a big chunk of his three grown daughters' inheritance.
That might seem a reasonable assumption, what with all the talk in Washington about the need to repeal the estate tax to save the family farm. ''To keep farms in the family, we are going to get rid of the death tax,'' President Bush vowed a month ago; he and many others have made the point repeatedly.
But in fact the Riekenas will owe nothing in estate taxes. Almost no working farmers do, according to data from an Internal Revenue Service analysis of 1999 returns that has not yet been published.
Neil Harl, an Iowa State University economist whose tax advice has made him a household name among Midwest farmers, said he had searched far and wide but had never found a case in which a farm was lost because of estate taxes. ''It's a myth,'' Mr. Harl said.
Even one of the leading advocates for repeal of estate taxes, the American Farm Bureau Federation, said it could not cite a single example of a farm lost because of estate taxes.
The estate tax does, of course, have a bite. But the reality of that bite is different from the mythology, in which family farmers have become icons for the campaign to abolish the tax. In fact, the overwhelming majority of beneficiaries are the heirs of people who made their fortunes through their businesses and investments in securities and real estate.
The effort to end the estate tax -- which critics call the death tax -- gained ground when the House of Representatives voted Wednesday to reduce the tax and then abolish it in 2011. The bill faces an uncertain fate in the Senate.
The estate tax is central in the debate over taxes, not only because the sums involved are huge but also because to both sides it is a touchstone of national values. To those seeking to abolish it, the estate tax is a penalty for success, an abomination that blocks the deeply human desire to leave a life's work as a legacy for the children. It is also a complicated burden that enriches the lawyers, accountants and life insurance companies that help people reduce their tax bills.
To its supporters, on the other hand, the estate tax is a symbol of American equality, a mechanism to democratize society and to encourage economic success based on merit rather than birthright.
Yet for all the passion in the debate, the estate tax does not always seem broadly understood.
While 17 percent of Americans in a recent Gallup survey think they will owe estate taxes, in fact only the richest 2 percent of Americans do. That amounted to 49,870 Americans in 1999. And nearly half the estate tax is paid by the 3,000 or so people who each year leave taxable estates of more than $5 million.
In fact, the primary beneficiaries of the move to abolish the estate tax look less like the Riekenas and more like Frank A. Blethen, a Seattle newspaper publisher whose family owns eight newspapers worth perhaps a billion dollars.
''Being ever bloodthirsty, the I.R.S. will start with the highest value it can on my estate,'' said Mr. Blethen, the 55-year-old patriarch of the publishing family. The figure for his share will probably be several hundred million dollars, more than half of which would go to the government. Mr. Blethen is trying to avoid almost all those taxes through a plan also used by other wealthy families, but if he does not succeed his sons' interest in the business will be wiped out, he said.
Estate taxes are paid by few Americans because they are not assessed on the first $1.35 million of net worth left by a couple. Amounts above this are taxed at rates that begin at 43 percent and rise to 55 percent on amounts greater than $3 million. As the Riekenas and the Blethens have learned, there are many legal ways to reduce the value of one's wealth for estate tax purposes. So even for the largest estates, the tax averages 25 percent.
Family farmers are often cited as victims. As Senator Charles E. Grassley, an Iowa hog farmer and chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, put it, ''The product of a life's work leaches away like seeds in poor soil.''
Yet tax return data show that very few farmers pay estate taxes. Only 6,216 taxable estates in 1999 included any agricultural land and equipment, the I.R.S. report shows. The average value of these farm assets was $440,000, only about a third of the amount that any married couple could leave untaxed to heirs. What is more, a farm couple can pass $4.1 million untaxed, so long as the heirs continue farming for 10 years.
In Iowa, the average farm has a net worth of $1.2 million. Loyd A. Brown, president of Hertz Farm Management in Nevada, Iowa, which runs more than 400 farms in 10 states, said none of his firm's clients nor anyone he knew was facing problems because of the estate tax.
Just 1,222 estates in 1999 had enough in farm assets to make the farm property alone subject to estate taxes. But these farm assets amounted to one-tenth of these estates, suggesting that the tax applies mostly to gentleman farmers and ranchers, rather than to working farmers like the Riekenas, whose fortunes are tied up in their farms.
As the Riekenas were surprised to discover, avoiding the estate tax was easy. Their lawyer developed a simple plan that involved making gifts to their daughters and buying life insurance to offset any estate taxes that might be due if the parents died before most of the farm had been turned over to their daughters.
There is a real cost, of course -- payments to the lawyer and for the insurance. And in any case the paucity of affected farmers does not end the debate. Patricia A. Wolff, the Farm Bureau's chief lobbyist, said the organization made estate tax repeal its top priority because, while it has not surveyed its members, she was confident ''the majority of farmers and ranchers believe that death taxes are wrong and that it is wrong to tax people twice on what they earn.''
But Mr. Riekena and all two dozen other farmers interviewed across central Iowa -- every one a Republican -- said that while they favored increasing the amount that could be passed to heirs untaxed, they did not support the repeal proposed by President Bush and other leaders of his party. A few snickered or laughed when asked whether the estate tax should be repealed to save the family farm.
But Senator Grassley himself opposes the estate tax, in large part because he thinks that while a decision to keep or sell an asset is an appropriate trigger for a tax, death should not be.
He added another reason: ''I do not think that the function of government is to redistribute wealth.''
Indeed, that seems to be the fault line in the debate: should the government play Robin Hood with estates?
''If you worked hard and put your money away, you paid tax on it as you went along, so it's yours and you should be able to pass it on to your children without the government penalizing you,'' said R. Elaine Gunland, who grows grapes in Fresno, Calif., and whose family may owe estate taxes when she dies.
Mr. Blethen, the fourth-generation publisher of a newspaper started in 1896 with $3,000, says he speaks for many others in supporting repeal of the tax in the name of preserving family businesses.
''I firmly believe that family-owned businesses are the heart and soul of the country,'' said Mr. Blethen, who has created a Web site called deathtax.com.
Mr. Blethen says the estate tax benefits publicly traded companies at the expense of family-owned businesses. The reason is that the public companies can often buy family businesses at a discount because the owners did not raise the cash to pay estate taxes and must sell quickly at fire sale prices.
Mr. Blethen said some of the seven smaller papers his family bought in Washington and Maine came from families that had not planned carefully for the estate tax and decided it was easier to cash out.
''If you like corporate culture, and think America needs more of it, then you love the estate tax,'' he said. ''I think this march toward corporatism is not healthy and we lose innovation, jobs and charitable giving.''
Mr. Blethen said the estate tax also discouraged major new investments in family businesses late in the life of the primary owner because such investments consumed cash that might be needed at any time to pay estate taxes.
He said the estate tax also ''forces you into irresponsible gift making'' to heirs. He felt compelled to give half the future growth of his fortune to his two sons when they were not yet kindergartners even though he had no way of telling whether the boys would turn out to be industrious, as they did, or scalawags.
Despite his fierce opposition to the estate tax, Mr. Blethen does not support President Bush's current plan to repeal the tax because it would also exempt from capital gains taxes the profits on assets passed to heirs when those assets are sold. ''That's not fair,'' Mr. Blethen said.
He said Mr. Bush's proposal would have the perverse effect of encouraging the sale of family-owned businesses, because heirs would see death as their chance to sell tax-free and to diversify their portfolios, instead of continuing to bear the risks of holding a single enterprise.
Mr. Blethen thinks that rather than taxing an estate, taxes should apply when a business is sold. ''You want to defer those capital gains and let them grow so large that the family will keep the business to avoid the capital gains taxes,'' he said.
The debate does not divide neatly among rich and poor. Since February more than 800 wealthy Americans have joined in a public appeal to keep the estate tax. They argue that repealing the tax would further enrich the wealthiest Americans and hurt struggling families. They also argue that financial success should be based on merit rather than on inheritance.
Warren E. Buffett, George Soros, Paul Newman and William H. Gates Sr., father of Microsoft's chairman, William H. Gates III, are among the most prominent in that group, which also includes many people with holdings of just a million dollars.
Mr. Buffett said the estate tax fosters economic growth by encouraging Americans to rise based on merit, not inheritance. ''If you take the C.E.O.'s of the Fortune 500,'' he said in an interview, ''and put in the eldest son of every one of those who ran the place in 1975, the American economy would not run as well as letting the Jack Welches, who started out with nothing, rise to the top of General Electric.''
Back in central Iowa, Mr. Riekena had another reason. He said Washington was focused on the wrong issue when it came to saving family farms.
''For most farmers around here, the estate tax is not high in their minds,'' Mr. Riekena said. ''What we need are better crop prices.''
Photos: Harlyn Riekena, who owns 950 acres of farmland in Iowa, expects to owe nothing in estate taxes. (Suzanne DeChillo/The New York Times)(pg. 1); Frank A. Blethen, publisher of The Seattle Times, says the estate tax could cost his family many millions of dollars after his death. (Peter Yates for The New York Times)(pg. 24) Chart: ''Few Farms in Taxable Estates'' Estate tax opponents say the levy is destroying the family farm. But only the richest 2 percent of the 2.4 million Americans who died in 1999 left estate tax bills. Only one in eight of these taxable estates included any farm property. On average, only one in 40 taxable estates included enough farm land and equipment for the farm asssets alone to incur estate taxes. 49,870: Total number of taxable estates in 1999 6,216, or 12.5 percent, of the taxable estates had any farm assets 1,222, or 2.5 percent of estates, on average, might have had to pay taxes because of their farm assets. (Source: Internal Revenue Service)(pg. 24)
Correction: April 12, 2001, Thursday A front-page article on Sunday about farms and estate taxes referred incompletely to the position of Loyd A. Brown, president of Hertz Farm Management in Iowa. Mr. Brown said that while he did not know of anyone who had lost a farm because of the estate tax, he thought Congress should either eliminate the tax or increase the amount that could be inherited untaxed.
Sunday, April 8, 2001
In the April 8, 2001 New York Times article "Talk of Lost Farms Reflects Muddle of Estate Tax Debate," David Cay Johnston explains that the risk of family farms being lost because of the estate tax has been exaggerated by some advocates of the tax's elimination.