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John Major has put inheritance tax on the map. It is a tax which raises more emotion than revenue, hovering between the incompatible virtues of meritocracy and family obligation. Yet almost nothing is known about it. One reason is that so few people actually pay it.

No tax at all is paid on the first ?154,000 of an estate. Disposals to a spouse are free of the tax; so are bequests to charities and gifts made more than seven years before death. In 1991-92, 255,000 estates were notified to the authorities but only 16,500 qualified to pay the tax, and…

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