“Do you realize I haven’t contributed a dime to this farm today according to the IRS?” Doris Royal told her husband after a twelve-hour day pitching hay and feeding cattle. Starting in 1975, Royal launched a prolonged, but ultimately successful campaign to reform federal inheritance tax laws. This article can be found in the 2015 summer issue of Nebraska History.
The Royal Petition, Doris’s campaign, started from her own kitchen table and became well-known in all fifty states. The petition addressed the issue of estate tax discrimination against married women. The government did not recognize marriage as a true partnership, meaning that after the death of a spouse, estate taxes would apply to property transfer from one spouse to another. Royals did not believe it was fair that she might have to pay estate tax after spending most of her life contributing to the farm’s success. The law she was fighting to change became known as the “widow’s tax.” She spoke out and gained supporters from a range of political viewpoints, including both conservatives and feminists.
Congress and the public became aware of the widow’s tax, but Royal was aggravated by the slow pace of legislation. She requested permission from the Chief Counsel of the House Committee to testify on her topic. She made a memorable entrance by walking in with three cardboard apple boxes containing over 130,000 signed petitions. Six months later Congress finally took action on a bill to modify the estate tax. Senator Edward Kennedy’s opposition to the bill persuaded some Democratic senators, but failed to prevent Senate approval with bipartisan support. President Ford signed the Tax Reform Act of 1976. It increased estate tax exemption, but did not eliminate the “widow’s tax” provision.
Royal then began the second phase of her campaign. She and her neighbors mailed letters asking citizens to write to their senators and representatives. Royal even wrote to the newly elected president, Jimmy Carter. The letter campaign and travel meant Royal barely assisted her husband with the farm work, but she believed talking at venues was worth her time. A 1980 law fixed some of the problems with the 1976 law, but still did not provide a spousal tax-free of property with 100 percent marital deduction with no exceptions.
When Royal entered the third phase of her campaign she returned to public speaking and refocused her efforts solely on the widow’s tax. By August of 1981, over six years since the original petition, Congress passed and President Ronald Reagan signed an Economic Recovery bill. It went into effect January 1, 1982. The act included a provision for an unlimited marital deduction on federal estate taxes. In addition, all gifts to one’s spouse were deemed tax-free. Royal declined an opportunity to be at the presidential signing ceremony. She was tired of traveling and too busy working with livestock.
Doris Royal claimed she was more comfortable on a tractor than in front of a microphone, but her successful campaign made people think otherwise. Royal’s campaign changed the law on three levels. It first raised the dollar amount of the estate tax exemptions. Then the government officially acknowledged a woman’s “non-working” labor contribution as added value to the estate. Finally, surviving spouses no longer had to pay estate taxes at all. As historian Amy Forss wrote, “She did not realize her overall role in changing history while it unfolded thirty years ago, but she did indeed prove that one person can make a difference.”
— Brittany Hamor, Editorial Assistant