2009 has been an interesting year for estate planners. The arrival of 2009 brought an increase in the applicable exclusion amount to $3.5 million (from $2 million in 2008), meaning taxpayers with proper planning could shield this amount from the imposition of federal estate taxes. 2009 also brought the scheduled estate tax repeal for a one year period beginning on January 1, 2010 that much closer.

Notwithstanding the fact that we are now less than seven months away from a temporary estate tax repeal, there is a prevailing belief among estate planners that Congress will change the law before 2010 preserving some form of the estate tax, especially in light of the economic meltdown and the federal deficit.

In fact, numerous bills have already been introduced in Congress detailing estate tax parameters for 2010 and beyond. With respect to the applicable exclusion amount, three separate House bills have been introduced with exclusion amounts equal to $2 million, $3.5 million and $5 million, respectively.

For the most part, the estate tax rates in these bills are set at the current 45% estate tax rate, and some impose surtaxes on estates in excess of $10 to $25 million.

Other important items are addressed in these bills as well. For example, there is a mention of unifying the gift and estate exemptions, meaning if this were part of the new law (we believe unlikely at this point), the $1 million lifetime gift exclusion amount would be increased to equal the estate tax exclusion amount. This certainly would expand the ability of a taxpayer to implement more lifetime transfer planning.

Some of the bills include the concept of making the estate tax exclusion portable for couples, meaning for example if a husband does not utilize his full exclusion, his wife could utilize not only her exclusion, but his as well.

Finally, there is language in one bill which would restrict the use of valuation discounts typically applied to the ownership of closely held non-business family entities. These discounts are an integral part in transferring wealth to the next generation.

We will be keeping a close eye on estate tax legislation throughout the year and will report to you the new estate tax law as soon as it is passed.