Is the current approach to inheritance tax fair?

Is the current approach to inheritance tax fair?

It has always been the role of the law to define what is meant by ’fair.’ However, anyone scanning the news or social commentary will be unsurprised to hear that this topic is not without controversy.

There are many influences on the law; political intention, practical application, and societal context all jostle for position alongside fairness, but the balancing act of their sum outcome is another task again.

But how we define ‘fair’ and at which point we consider the ‘real life’ context of people’s lived experiences, is less clear cut.

In my area of practice – trust and estate law – I was startled by new figures from HMRC which revealed the UK government’s decision to freeze the inheritance tax threshold at £325,000 until April 2028 could impact almost four times more families than initially expected. This threshold has not changed since 2009 and has not kept pace with rising property values.

Within HMRC’s owns forecasts it has been suggested that some 49,400 estates – rather than previous estimates of around 13,400 – will now face being subject to inheritance tax in the seven years to 2028.

The government’s decision – announced in November last year by then Chancellor Jeremy Hunt –  was linked with the UK government’s intent to reduce its budget deficit. However, the significant rise in families falling within the threshold is largely because of sustained high inflation rates raising the values of their estates.

But there is another significant factor at play here. HMRC has also published figures this summer which reveal that, as a result of higher death rates during the pandemic, there has been a corresponding increase in the number of estates facing inheritance tax payments – to the tune of a record £5.76bn in 2020-21 – up £800m year-on-year.

From a legal perspective, there is a question here around fairness – to individuals facing substantial inheritance tax bills and to the UK government, too, trying to balance its books. Where does the best balance lie?

As legal professionals know, any change to laws within the UK, including Scotland, is a long-term undertaking and needs careful consideration, especially when there are a higher-than-normal levels of economic and societal flux.

Ultimately, it is the role of policy makers, and the voters who elect them to decide. But wise legal counsel will be crucial.

In the meantime, with careful planning and professional advice there are various reliefs and exemptions available to mitigate exposure to inheritance tax, if someone wishes to do so, within the existing rules.

This article is featured in The Herald.

If you are looking for more information on the above topic, contact  Caroline Pringle or your usual Anderson Strathern contact.

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