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George Steinbrenner's $600 Million Jackpot

By Selena Maranjian - Updated Apr 6, 2017 at 12:35PM

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He left the game at a financially lucrative time.

Attention, aged zillionaires: If you simply must shuffle off the mortal coil, 2010 is a financially opportune year to do so.

Tax cuts earlier in the decade gradually reduced the estate tax to its current level of zero in 2010, but it's scheduled to revert back to its previous state in 2011. Most estates of more than $1 million could lose a whopping 55% to the IRS.

The recently deceased George Steinbrenner's estate, as you might imagine, far exceeded that million-dollar threshold. The New York Yankees owner's total wealth was recently estimated at $1.15 billion. A 55% tax hit on that would come to more than $600 million, taking more than half of his heirs' inheritance. But since Steinbrenner died in 2010, the estate tax is … zero. (Congress is looking at reinstating it retroactively, but that appears increasingly unlikely.)

Before you start worrying that the tax man will pursue you beyond the grave, too, bear in mind a few salient facts. First, with the exemption at $3.5 million in 2009, the Tax Policy Center projected that only 5,500 estates would owe any tax. Next year, even if the exemption returns to $1 million, it's estimated that fewer than 45,000 estates nationwide will pay anything.

Also, the very wealthy can still find ways to get around much of the estate tax. Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE: BRK-A) (NYSE: BRK-B) CEO Warren Buffett and Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT) co-founder Bill Gates, for example, are leaving the bulk of their estates to charity, thereby removing those sums from Uncle Sam's reach. They're urging other billionaires to do the same, prompting a bunch of announcements of charitable intent.

Among other philanthropists, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen recently pledged the bulk of his billions. Eli and Edythe Broad, who made their billions via KB Home (NYSE: KBH), have pledged 75% of their wealth. Former Cisco Systems (Nasdaq: CSCO) chairman John Morgridge is also interested in making a similar gift, according to Bloomberg.

Some philanthropists support charity with their own foundations. eBay (Nasdaq: EBAY) co-founder Pierre Omidyar launched his own charitable foundation years ago, as did Intel (Nasdaq: INTC) co-founder Gordon Moore and many other very wealthy people. The estate tax might ultimately affect them, but their generosity means it'll take less of a bite out of their fortunes.

For us, though, the main lesson to take from Mr. Steinbrenner's coup is that little tax details can make a big difference to your wealth. Learn how to pay less and save more in our Tax Center.

One way to keep the tax man at bay is to hang onto a stock for the long haul -- like this keeper.

Berkshire Hathaway, Intel, and Microsoft are Motley Fool Inside Value picks. Berkshire Hathaway and eBay are Motley Fool Stock Advisor selections. Motley Fool Options has recommended a bull call spread position on eBay, buying calls on Intel, and a diagonal call position on Microsoft. The Fool owns shares of Berkshire Hathaway and Intel. Try any of our investing newsletter services free for 30 days.

Longtime Fool contributor Selena Maranjian owns shares of Berkshire Hathaway, Microsoft, and eBay. The Motley Fool is Fools writing for Fools.

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Stocks Mentioned

Berkshire Hathaway Inc. Stock Quote
Berkshire Hathaway Inc.
$449,189.16 (2.20%) $9,660.25
Microsoft Corporation Stock Quote
Microsoft Corporation
$284.99 (0.73%) $2.08
Berkshire Hathaway Inc. Stock Quote
Berkshire Hathaway Inc.
$297.89 (1.99%) $5.82
eBay Inc. Stock Quote
eBay Inc.
$48.64 (2.88%) $1.36
Intel Corporation Stock Quote
Intel Corporation
$35.55 (0.45%) $0.16
Cisco Systems, Inc. Stock Quote
Cisco Systems, Inc.
$45.21 (0.44%) $0.20
KB Home Stock Quote
KB Home
$32.11 (1.29%) $0.41

*Average returns of all recommendations since inception. Cost basis and return based on previous market day close.

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