Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Inheritance tax - Who's right? Who is really at risk?

The two main parties are arguing as to the impact of inheritance tax and who would benefit if the rules were changed.

Back in October I posted an item here: IHT receipts FALL under Labour - what's going on? This followed a report in the Guardian that Inheritance tax drops to all-time low under Labour. Exploring the issue further I concluded that the number of estates paying IHT would fall in the immediate future. My conclusions were drawn from HMRC's data and the impact of recent changes to the IHT rules.

I suggested that the number of estates paying IHT would fall, probably to something around 4% which accords with the Chancellor's later assertion in his PBR that "fewer than three per cent of estates will pay inheritance tax." Leaving aside arguments as to whether the tax is wholly "avoidable" if one is very wealthy and employs top tax experts, this is not going to affect 'Middle-England'.

The Tories have now extrapolated data from the Office of National Statistics that seems to show that over 4 million adults have non-pension wealth above the current inheritance tax threshold of £325,000. And this leads to the conclusion that one in five families and one in 10 people above the age of 18 are potentially liable to IHT.

It's simply not true however to suggest that "More than 4million face inheritance tax bombshell under Labour." Over and above the £325k per head exemption the rules also provide further exemptions (in effect) for qualifying business and agricultural assets.

These exemptions also mean that some very wealthy people are not currently subject to IHT as there is no cap on the value of qualifying assets that can escape IHT.

In any event, it seems fair to review the Government's data to which I referred above. If it is wrong the Tories' plans will benefit Middle-England as they assert. On the other hand, if the data is reliable, the Tories' plans will simply improve the well being and perceptions of Middle-England as they are not really at risk of a substantial liability to IHT.

The real issue is the soaring value of houses (homes) owned by people when they die and the disparity in such values across the UK. The average price of a home is now £162k so to many people only the very wealthy own homes worth £800k (which together with other assets could take an estate upto £1m). However in parts of London and the South East this is not uncommon. And I assume this is why the Tories want to raise the headline threshold so high. It might be less contentious to do something I think John Major suggested in the 1990s and John Redwood proposed, to a degree, in 2007. To exempt the main home from IHT?

The key issue for both parties is to shift the fear of inheritance tax from the consciousness of average families - wherever they live. If this requires changes to the tax rules, and I think it does, then such changes should be welcomed.

And this would also lead to a consequential and welcome development. The end of inheritance tax avoidance seminars run by promoters of standard trust-based 'solutions' - many of which are dubious in the extreme - especially in so far as they purport to reduce the IHT payable by reference to the value of your main residence.

I've heard stories of how slick presentations result in long queues of audience members who sign up and pay for a supposedly legal document there and then. They are encouraged to do this without any real regard for their personal situations and without the benefit of any qualified tax or legal advice. That's NEVER a good idea. If you have any IHT concerns do speak to a suitably qualified and independent tax adviser.

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