Sam Dunn: Inheritance tax has the common touch and that's no virtue

It isn't just the well-heeled who get whacked by IHT
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The Independent Online

"In this world nothing is certain but death and taxes," remarked Benjamin Franklin, one of the founding fathers of the United States of America.

Had he been able to see the future, he might have lumped the two together and added inheritance tax (IHT) to his list of certainties - for this charge is creeping from the outer fringes of many people's personal finance planning to the centre.

For years, you pay income tax, mortgage yourself to the hilt, save some cash (usually taxed), and plough money into an investment or two (ditto) - and what happens when you die and your pension (also taxed) stops paying out?

The taxman steps in and grabs a slice of your estate, to leave your loved ones clutching a smaller legacy.

From 6 April, any accumulated wealth over £285,000 will be taxed at 40 per cent at death - a threshold that will rise to £325,000 by 2009, Mr Brown announced in last week's Budget.

For more and more families, these figures will loom large. House price rises since the mid-1990s have catapulted hundreds of thousands of homeowners into the inheritance tax net.

Since 1996, property prices have risen by 176 per cent while the IHT threshold has grown by 85 per cent, reports the Halifax.

To underline the extent to which the Treasury's largesse has failed to keep pace with inflation in bricks and mortar, if the IHT threshold had been raised in line with house prices during this time, it would be £425,000 from 6 April.

Today, some 1.5 million homes in the UK are worth more than the £285,000 threshold, says the Halifax. And by 2020, this number is expected to treble to 4.6 million households.

Mr Brown says that only 6 per cent of estates pay IHT today, but that figure stood at just 3 per cent when he came to power.

Some critics, including the Express newspapers, have called for its abolition - a radical idea but one sure to result in lost tax revenues being squeezed from elsewhere in our finances.

Others just want it to be linked, as proposed by the Halifax, to house price rises.

The level at which you think IHT should apply will probably depend on your politics and personality.

A £285,000 threshold may be horribly close to home for many, but it is a fantasy sum for millions of others who might never amass the sort of wealth needed to test this limit.

What is clear, however, is that more savers are becoming trapped by the tax.

Where once it was only the well-heeled who got whacked, it's a levy likely to become increasingly familiar to ordinary families.

A review of IHT's growing importance, impact and structure is long overdue.

s.dunn@independent.co.uk

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