"How long do I have?" James Pierson asked, trying to maintain eye contact with the man behind the desk.
"Three months, eleven days, seven hours and forty-three minutes," David Barnett said.
"Well, it's now the afternoon of August 19, 2010," Barnett said. "We're advising people not to wait until the very last day. December 31 is a time when there can be a certain amount of New Year's Eve chaos at hospitals, and that could put the death certificate over until next year, or at least muddy the waters if there's a question that ends up in court. So, getting it done in 2010, if you're being prudent, means getting it done before December 31, or three months, eleven days, seven hours and forty-three minutes from now."
Pierson swallowed. He found the phrase "getting it done" off-putting. Finally, he said, "I don't suppose there's a chance that this could be reversed."
"Well, in theory there's always a chance," Barnett said. "The Democrats could come back after recess and announce that they've changed their minds, and, despite everything they've said in the nine years since 2001, they're going to make the repeal of the inheritance tax permanent, but I don't think it would be wise to count on that happening."
"So it's now or never is what you're saying?" Pierson said.
"Well, it's this year or never. Look, under the provisions of the original law, the exemption has been raised and the rates lowered every year for the past nine years. It would have been shortsighted to die in order to take advantage of any of those tax reductions, because this year the tax is gone altogether. But the law still has its sunset provision: It fades away on December 31, 2010, unless it's renewed. So, given the Democratic majorities in both houses and the current deficit, it's likely that starting January 1, 2011, the estate tax will be the same as it was before the rates started coming down. From a tax liability standpoint, there is no alternative to taking advantage of this window of opportunity."
"Look, Jim," Barnett said, "Why are you in the business you're in?"
"Because the company had enormous paper losses that saved me a bundle in taxes and the only thing it actually owned was shares in some airliners that we depreciated the hell out of before we fobbed them off on some bush airline in Central America."
"And why do you drive the vehicle you drive, even though the dozer attachment makes it difficult to park in any space smaller than the Wal-Mart parking lot?"
"Because we can write it off as farm equipment, of course," Pierson said.
"This is my point," Barnett said. "You've always run your life according to what makes sense from a tax-liability standpoint. You have a vacation condo in Louisiana, where you exist in what amounts to a steam bath all summer, because it's in a development that juts out into the gulf and we figured out how to depreciate it as a shrimp boat. You and Margaret tried to time the birth of your children for late December to get an extra year's deduction. You've planted a lot of weird-looking trees so we could have your backyard declared an experimental forest and take a $14,000 loss every year, not to mention deducting what you pay the kid to mow the lawn. I'm just your tax consultant, Jim. But it seems to me that if you don't take advantage of the 2010 window, you wouldn't be you."
"I'd be alive, of course," Pierson said. "There's that."
"But don't you see: You'd just be living for the government," Barnett said. "Just because you live past 2010, 50 percent of your estate will go right into Uncle Sam's pocket. What's the point?"
"Fifty percent!" Pierson blurted out--and then, before he realized what he was saying, added, "I'd sooner die than give the government 50 percent!"
"Exactly!" Barnett said.
Pierson was silent for a while. Then, his voice still tentative, he said, "Have you been making any suggestions about method? When you said 'window of opportunity' a moment ago..."
"No, no," Barnett said. "What we're recommending is a high-quality hunting rifle. It's dependable, easy to operate and almost certain to be completely undamaged by the incident, so that it can be passed on in mint condition to the heirs--who, of course, would pay absolutely no inheritance tax on it."
"A high-quality hunting rifle would be rather expensive," Pierson said. "I don't suppose..."
"Yes, we believe that under a loophole in a rider to the Reserve Officer Training Act, as rewritten in 1978, we have a way to deduct it," Barnett said, "as long as you register your cellar as an Alternate Emergency Munitions Collection Point."
Pierson nodded his head silently, and then said, "I wouldn't imagine..."
"Yes," Bartlett said. "We believe we've figured out a way that your heirs could depreciate the hunting rifle."
"Over ten or fifteen years?"
"Six years," Bartlett said, beaming with pride.
"Six years!" Pierson said.
"Wow!" He nodded his head again, slapped his hands on his knees, and stood up. Then he said, with new resolution in his voice, "That settles it."