Dan L. Duncan, a soft-spoken farm boy who started with $10,000 and two propane trucks, and built a network of natural gas processing plants and pipelines that made him the richest person in Houston, died in late March of a brain hemorrhage at 77.
Had his life ended three months earlier, Mr. Duncan’s riches — Forbes magazine estimated his worth at $9 billion, ranking him as the 74th wealthiest in the world — would have been subject to a federal tax of at least 45 percent. If he had lived past Jan. 1, 2011, the rate would be even higher — 55 percent.
Instead, because Congress allowed the tax to lapse for one year and gave all estates a free pass in 2010, Mr. Duncan’s four children and four grandchildren stand to collect billions that in any other year would have gone to the Treasury.
The United States enacted an estate tax in 1916, and when John D. Rockefeller, America’s first billionaire, died in 1937, his estate paid 70 percent. Since then, the rates have fluctuated, but this is the first time the tax has been repealed altogether.
The bonanza in tax savings for Mr. Duncan’s descendants is sure to be unsettling to those who have paid estate taxes on more modest wealth — until Jan. 1 of this year, it applied to any estate valued at more than $3.5 million, taxing only the money exceeding that threshold, or $7 million for a couple’s estate.
If Congress passes a retroactive estate tax this year, there is good reason to believe that there will be at least one estate with the wherewithal to challenge the constitutionality of the law. For this and the obvious political considerations, I am willing to bet that Congress is going to do nothing with the estate tax this year. By doing nothing, they will allow the estate tax law to revert to its terms as of the 2001 tax act, which will mean that the amount each person can pass estate tax free will be $1 million, and the tax on any amounts in excess of the $1 million will be 55%.