George Steinbrenner never had to calculate when to hit a major-league fastball, but in death, his timing was impeccable.
By dying this year, the Yankees' billionaire owner found the sweet spot in the U.S. tax code, exiting this earthly world during a year in which congressional dallying has allowed the estate tax to lapse, potentially saving his heirs hundreds of millions of dollars.
Had he died last year and tried to pass his fortune onto his children or grandchildren, they would have faced a 45 percent tax on assets over $3.5 million. Had he lived until next year, the rate would have been 55 percent. But Steinbrenner's death this year, like that of three other known billionaires who have died in 2010, gives his heirs a break.
"If you're super-wealthy, it's a good year to die," said Jack Nuckolls, an attorney and estate planner with the accounting firm BDO Seidman. "It really is."
The United States enacted an estate tax in 1916. The rates have fluctuated, but this is the first time the tax has been repealed. Although the tax affects only about 5,500 estates a year, the yearlong hiatus could cost the U.S. Treasury an estimated $14.8 billion or more in 2010.
Forbes estimated Steinbrenner's personal wealth last year at $1.15 billion. By far the biggest asset was his 55 percent stake in the Yankees' parent company, which includes the team, the YES Network and the new Yankee Stadium. His estate also includes the family's prized Kinsman Stud Farm in Ocala and interests in hotel, restaurant and construction concerns. His real estate holdings, including his home in Tampa, are also worth millions.
Without knowing the exact details of Steinbrenner's holdings and estate plan, it's impossible to say how much money will be saved. And any amounts passed on to his wife or to charity would be exempt from the estate tax. But estate planners and tax experts say it's likely that the estate benefited hugely by the timing of his death.
That doesn't mean his heirs permanently escape all taxes related to his assets. They will still have to ultimately pay a capital gains tax if and when assets are sold. And due to a change in tax law this year, the tax would be applied to the amount by which the assets have appreciated since Steinbrenner acquired them.
That said, even if the Steinbrenners sold the assets right away, the top capital gains tax rate is 15 percent, far short of last year's estate tax.
Some wealthy families use trusts to lower estate taxes. But even transferring assets to family trusts wouldn't have significantly lessened Steinbrenner's federal tax liability unless he gave vast amounts of assets to relatives as gifts before he died. Those would have been subject to a large gift tax.
The Steinbrenners are expected to avoid what happened to the family of Chicago Cubs owner P.K. Wrigley after he died in 1977. The family was forced to sell the Cubs to the Tribune Co. four years later to pay the taxes on Wrigley's estate. The family of former Miami Dolphins owner Joe Robbie also had to sell the team to pay the estate tax.
Having the estate of another high-profile billionaire avoid the estate tax because of good timing could force Congress to act.
"Because of Mr. Steinbrenner's public name and stature, his death may draw the attention of Congress — they simply have to decide what do," said Henry Christensen, the president of the International Academy of Trust and Estate Counsel. "We've had this year of chaos in the estate planning world."