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Scary! Dead celebrities still make money; Plus, will estate tax stay dead?

Just in time for Halloween, Forbes has issued its annual list of the top-earning dead celebrities.

Michael Jackson never made the magazine's annual Celebrity 100 list during his life, but in death, the late King of Pop rules. He made more money over the past year than any other musician or actor, dead or alive.

That's definitely thrilling news for MJ's estate.

Jackson not only took the No.1 spot on Forbes' 10th annual dead-celeb money makers, raking in gross earnings of $275 million, he out-earned the other 12 deceased stars on the list combined.

Even more impressive: The Jackson estate's 12-month haul was greater than the pooled earnings of this year's two biggest living acts, U2 and AC/DC.

The dozen deceased big earners, with a tie for #11, are:

  1. Michael Jackson, $275 million 
  2. Elvis Presley, $60 million 
  3. J.R.R. Tolkien, $50 million 
  4. Charles Schulz, $33 million  
  5. John Lennon, $17 million 
  6. Stieg Larsson, $15 million 
  7. Dr. Seuss (Theodor Geisel), $11 million 
  8. Albert Einstein, $10 million 
  9. George Steinbrenner, $8 million 
  10. Richard Rodgers, $7 million 
  11. Jimi Hendrix, $6 million
  12. Steve McQueen, $6 million
  13. Aaron Spelling, $5 million

I'm glad to see the guy who said "The hardest thing in the world to understand is the income tax" made the list (#8).

Escaping the estate tax: Of those on the latest list, only George Steinbrenner's estate benefited from the death this year of the federal estate tax.

The estate tax is set to return to the U.S. tax code in a more stringent form than when it last was on the books (in 2009) unless Congress acts.

This being an election year, all taxes are getting a lot of attention, at least on the campaign trail. And the estate tax, because of its special 2010 circumstances, is getting an added focus.

Around 500 candidates have vowed to make the federal estate tax repeal permanent if elected.

Of course, not every signer of the American Family Business Institute's pledge to eliminate the federal estate tax will win on Nov. 2, but the sheer number of supporters is impressive.

Working on the 2010 estate tax rules: Meanwhile, as politicians wrangle with the future of the estate tax, regulators are going about the business of administering the current, and scheduled, estate tax law.

Guidance on how to administer the estates of people who died in 2010 is still being developed, reports Tax Analysts. In crafting the rules, the Treasury Department and the IRS are considering multiple issues, such as how many individuals will have to file, whether they can file electronically, how the information collected will be used and how the regulatory regime will be coordinated with other IRS systems and code sections.

Catherine Hughes, attorney-adviser in Treasury's Office of Tax Legislative Counsel, spoke at the recent meeting of the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants' (AICPA) fall tax division meeting in Washington. Hughes and IRS officials at the event urged AICPA members to share their suggestions and anecdotal experiences, particularly in the areas of carryover basis and reporting large transfers at death.

Noting that the information return for large estates is due April 15, 2011, Hughes said that Treasury and the IRS "still have some leeway" for issuing guidance and related forms and that Treasury may extend the deadline by regulation.

Don't forget about your state: Many states tie their estate taxes to the federal law. Known as "pick-up taxes," the state's share of the tax comes out of what the estate paid the IRS.

In other words, no tax is required beyond the amount paid to the federal government. And when the federal estate tax died, so did the state levies in these jurisdictions.

Some states, however, severed that connection and still collect estate and/or inheritance taxes

Estate taxes typically are assessed the assets left by a person who dies. Inheritance taxes usually are paid by the friends and family who are bequeathed property.

Be sure to check with your state's tax office to find out whether you do or don't have to file tax forms for a dearly departed or as an heir.

Who isn't affected: Not to get too morbid, but it is Halloween and ghouls rule, so I thought you might be interested in learning about the wealthy who've passed away in this no-estate-tax year.

Hani Sarji is keeping track of them in his blog post Dying Free of the Federal Estate Tax.

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I wonder. How many people kept such bad records that the old rules (a step up in basis, but an estate tax) sort of 'wiped the slate clean."
In that regard, the 2009 law ($3.5M exemption, right?) was the best choice. The 2010 law is actually a paper trail nightmare for those it impacts.

My wish - bring back an exemption, $2M, $3M, whatever. Increase it by inflation, and rough to nearest $100K. It's the messing with taxes that create more of an issue. They are such a moving target, no one can keep track.

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