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Tycoon's well-timed death pays dividend

Textile tycoon Roger Milliken ducked the taxman upon his death almost a century after his grandfather lost a landmark legal fight with the federal government over sheltering a fortune from the estate tax.

The 95-year-old Milliken, chairman of Milliken & Co., one of the world's largest closely held textile, chemical, and floor-covering manufacturers, died in a Spartanburg, S.C., hospice Dec. 30, less than 48 hours before a temporarily lapsed federal tax on multimillion-dollar estates was to be reinstated.

Milliken's fortune now will pass to his heirs with no estate tax.

"The timing of his death surely benefited his heirs and the company," said Jock Nash, Milliken's Washington lobbyist on trade issues for 25 years. "His timing was impeccable."

In 1916, his grandfather, company co-founder Seth Milliken, sought to avoid the newly created estate levy by giving shares of the company to his children. He died in 1920. The Supreme Court in 1931 ruled that Seth Milliken's gifts were subject to the estate tax.

"These are people who have made efforts to avoid estate taxes for nearly a century," said Columbia University law professor Michael Graetz. His 2006 book, "Death by a Thousand Cuts: The Fight Over Taxing Inherited Wealth," chronicles efforts to abolish the estate tax that resulted in a one-year hiatus of the levy for 2010.

The federal estate tax was reinstated this year. Had Roger Milliken died Jan. 1, he would have faced a top rate of 35 percent after a $5 million tax-free allowance. His fortune peaked at $1 billion in 2003, according to Forbes magazine. It has declined since, along with the U.S. textile industry.

Jenni Gregory, an administrative assistant for the Spartanburg County Coroner's Office, said Milliken died of natural causes.

Nash said Milliken's estate planning "had been going on for decades. Milliken & Co. will survive regardless of when he died."

At least five billionaires died in 2010, including New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner on July 13 and Texas natural-gas tycoon Dan Duncan on March 28.

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