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Black farmer fights to kill death tax

By Avis Thomas-Lester/Urban News Service
On June 29, 2016

John Wesley Boyd, Sr. (left) and John Wesley Boyd, Jr., president of the National Black Farmers Association. Photo by Fred Watkins.

John Wesley Boyd, Jr., lives off the land raising cows and growing soybeans and corn on 400 acres he owns in rural Baskerville, Virginia.

He works alongside his father, John Wesley Boyd, Sr., 75, who farms 117 acres nearby that he inherited from his own father. Together they’ve faced drought, fluctuating crop prices and encroaching development. Farming isn’t an easy life, Boyd, Jr. said, but it’s one that he enjoys and hopes to pass down to his own children.

Unless, he said, his family is forced to sell the farm to pay the estate tax upon his death.

“People work hard to get something and make it grow,” said Boyd, 50. “Then, when they want to pass it on to their families, they owe the government so much in estate tax that the family has to sell the business to pay it. It’s not right.”

Boyd, founder and president of the National Black Farmers Association, is among a group of small- and medium-sized business owners who are lobbying for the repeal of the estate tax, which federally is levied on transferrable assets beyond $5.45 million – double that for married couples. The U.S. Senate soon will consider legislation to rescind the 40-percent federal estate tax. The House of Representatives voted to end it last year.

The estate tax, sometimes called the “death tax,” has been widely discussed since the loss of musician Prince Rogers Nelson, aka Prince, 57, who died without a will on April 21, at his Paisley Park Studio complex in Chanhassen, Minnesota. Prince, who died of an opioid overdose, was unmarried, had no children and was preceded in death by his parents.

Under Minnesota law, his sister and five half-siblings will inherit his assets, which are estimated to be worth up to $300 million. Estate planners believe that Prince’s fortune may shrink in half because he departed without directing his assets into charitable donations, trusts or other tax shelters.

Business owners who oppose the tax say it burdens heirs with generating cash when most of the decedent’s assets are tied up in their operations. The federal tax is due nine months after the death, but probate attorneys say the IRS will let heirs pay over several years.

Fifteen states – including Minnesota and Washington, D.C. – also assess estate taxes, and seven states levy inheritance taxes, according to Kiplinger.com. The website said several states have increased their exemptions in recent years, including Maine, thus reducing the number of people subject to estate tax. Tennessee dropped its tax this year.

But Richard Phillips, a senior policy analyst for Citizens for Tax Justice, said the tax only affects 2 percent of the wealthiest Americans. He challenged claims that the estate tax threatens small businesses.

“The estate tax is a crucial tool for curbing the worrisome growth in wealth inequality over the past couple decades,” said Phillips via email. “Rather than hurting small business, the estate tax helps ensure that we have the public resources that allow such businesses to flourish.”

The House passed the Death Tax Repeal Act of 2015 that April 16, 240-179. Congressmen Sanford D. Bishop, Jr. (D-Georgia) and Kevin Brady (R-Texas) championed this bill.

“The Death Tax represents all that is unfair and unjust about the tax structure in America because it undermines the life work and life savings of Americans who want only to pass on to their children and their grandchildren the fruits of their labor and the realization of their American Dream,” Bishop told Urban News Service via email.

The first estate tax was levied in 1797, to bolster military services in response to a perceived French threat, according to IRS.gov. It re-emerged in 1862, to help fund the Civil War and returned in 1898, to finance the Spanish-American War. It always was repealed. Today’s tax was passed in 1916 – 100 years ago – a year before America entered World War I. It has remained ever since.

John Boyd, Jr.’s assets, like those of many farmers, are tied up in his land and crops, he said. He and his wife Kara, 46, have traveled to Washington, D.C., to lobby for estate-tax repeal. He said the tax is always a hot topic at the National Black Farmers Association’s annual conventions.

The Boyds gained a foothold in the middle class because of land ownership, John, Jr. said. John, Sr. — known as “The Boss” — inherited his acreage from his father, Thomas Boyd, who purchased a large parcel when land ownership eluded many blacks.

Upon Thomas Boyd’s death, the property was divided among his 15 children. John Sr., the youngest child, and his brother, Benjamin (who lives in New York) are their generation’s last surviving siblings.

“Land is the most powerful thing that we can possess,” John Boyd, Jr. said. “Eliminating this tax would directly help a lot of farmers keep their land … That would help families now and for generations to come.”

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