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Abstract

For close to a century, an important (but unfortunate) feature of the Internal Revenue Code has been a rule that the tax basis of any inherited asset is made equal to its fair market value at the time of the decedent’s death. Notwithstanding the substantial revenue losses associated with this rule, Congress has retained it for reasons of administrative convenience.

But from three different vantage points, pressure has been mounting to change what is commonly referred to as the “step-up in basis rule.” First, politicians and commentators have historically tied the step-up in basis rule to the estate tax on the theory that income be taxed only once, rather than twice. However, with the recent emasculation of the transfer tax regime, no estate tax is levied in most cases, while taxpayers routinely capitalize on the step-up in basis rule. On another front, technological advances have greatly simplified tax basis identification and record keeping, making a carryover tax basis regime eminently feasible, which it previously was not. Finally, in an era of growing income inequality, retention of a clearly defective rule that primarily benefits the wealthy seems wholly unjustified.

Congress essentially has two different reform options to consider; namely, a deemed realization rule or a carryover tax basis rule. While a deemed realization rule has many advantages, it appears to be politically unachievable, at least for the time being, due to liquidity and administrative concerns. On the other hand, in light of the fact that a carryover tax basis rule is widely utilized, vetted, and accepted in the related context of inter vivos gifts, extending its application to transfers at death appears entirely feasible. Its institution would have many virtues, including improved administrability, equity, and revenue generation.

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