Balancing the Carrot and the Stick: Achieving Social Goals Through Real Property Tax Programs

Bender, Ryan F. | April 17, 2021

The sharp and growing wealth divide in the United States has elicited significant media and public attention over the past decade, with loud calls for achieving social goals through tax system change. While wealth preservation loopholes in the Internal Revenue Code can contribute to wealth inequalities, tax policies that incentivize socially responsible, tax efficient investment offer an attractive tool for estate planning professionals while also promoting social impact programs. Additionally, while direct government investments into low-income community development, land preservation, and food security are important drivers of change, tax policies that push private capital into these causes are equally important to making a social impact. Through the lens of three widely used estate planning strategies, (i) Qualified Opportunity Zone (QOZ) investments, (ii) conservation easement donations, and (iii) special agricultural appraisals, this Article examines the potential for such strategies to offer wealth-preserving tax breaks while directing private capital toward achieving social goals. There are pitfalls to be considered in the analysis of these programs, including inequality in accessing these tax breaks and potential for taxpayer abuse. Regardless, this Article concludes that well-drafted and properly policed incentive-based programs that offer tax discounts in return for private investments of capital into socially beneficial impact areas can offer an appealing alternative to direct government investment programs.