But the real heart of the attack on the estate tax is the claim that it burdens small family businesses and farms with an unaffordable bill when the founders pass on. A Wall Street Journal editorial retoasted this chestnut last week, stating that repeal would prevent "the all-too-common and tragic fire sale of businesses and farms when a family member dies."
The truth is that real-life examples are none too common. The estate experts I talked to couldn't point to a single one.
Among other things, family farms can be valued for estate tax purposes as working farms, not as real estate, which cuts their tax liability sharply. The tax on most farms and businesses, moreover, can be paid over as much as 15 years.
And there are tools to defray any estate tax, such as taking out life insurance policies on the founders. It's not unusual to hear business owners howl about the cost of this insurance, but that's a far cry from forcing them to sell the farm to pay the tax man.
"Often after the passing of a founder, there are a number of reasons to sell a business," Craig Janes, national director of estate, gift and trust services at consulting firm Deloitte, told me. "But taxes are generally not the most important consideration." Among the other factors, experts say, is the heirs' lack of interest or aptitude in running the enterprise.
As for parents' supposed divine right to take care of their children, financial planners say the prospect of turning their heirs into slobs and wastrels by leaving them too much money is a major concern of their rich clients. To hear these advisors talk, you'd think that every time Paris Hilton resurfaces in the tabloids, thousands of family wills get rewritten to pare down the kids' trust funds and bulk up the bequests to save the whales and feed the poor.
So consider this a plea for Congress to drop the subject of the estate tax, already. After all, the one indisputable fact about it is that it's the one tax whose payers are beyond feeling the pain.
Michael Hiltzik's column appears Mondays and Thursdays. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org and read his previous columns at www.latimes.com/hiltzik.