Our estate tax system is quite different from our income tax system. The income tax, as its name implies, focuses on how much money individuals, trusts, and business entities make. The estate tax system, in contrast, focuses on how much assets are worth. Most assets aren't hard to value. Stocks, bonds, mutual funds, and similar assets are valued at their publicly-traded fair market value (FMV) as of the date of death (or the executor can choose an "alternate valuation date" nine months later). But some assets are a little harder. Real estate, for example, is also valued at its FMV — but who's to say what a unique or expensive property is really "worth," especially in today's volatile market? Closely-held businesses can be even harder to appraise. And high-end collectibles, like the kind of art and antiques that usually sell at auction, can be hardest of all.
These issues make estate-tax enforcement a different challenge from income-tax enforcement. For fiscal year 2010, the IRS received 42,366 estate tax returns, and audited 4,288, or 10.1%. But just as income tax audits go up as your income rises, estate-tax audits go up as your assets go up. For that same year, the IRS received 3,013 estate tax returns reporting assets of $10 million or more — and audited 928 of them, or 30.8%!