Today, we look at strategies if the step-up is basis in eliminated for estate planning. There were two new proposals in the Senate this week which will target inherited wealth. These two Acts, if passed, would completely change Estate Planning for many families. The two Acts are called the STEP Act and the 99.5% Act.
The STEP Act
The STEP Act (Sensible Taxation and Equity Promotion Act), proposed by Senators Booker, Sanders, Warren, Whitehouse, and Van Hook would eliminate the Step-Up in Cost Basis. A Step-Up in Basis means that upon Death, an asset has its cost basis reset to the date of death. This allows the heirs to immediately sell an asset and receive the funds without owing any taxes. Or, if they choose to hold on to the asset, they will only owe tax on the capital gains from the date of death forward. Otherwise, they would owe taxes based on their parent’s cost basis (or other decedent).
The STEP Act proposes to eliminate the Step Up in Basis, retroactively to January 1, 2021. In its place, the Act would allow a one-time exclusion of up to $1 million of inherited capital gains. It also allows the tax to be paid over 15 years if it is an illiquid asset like a farm or business. Many older parents have held on to assets, such as mutual funds or real estate, specifically to get a step-up in basis for their children. Allowing for the exclusion of $1 million in capital gains at death will help most families. But include real estate, and many families will have over $1 million in unrealized capital gains. And those families will now be paying a capital gains tax.
The 99.5% Act
The 99.5% Act, proposed by Senator Sanders, will increase the Estate Tax paid by many families. Currently, the Estate Tax Exemption is $11.7 million ($23.4 million for a couple), which has effectively eliminated the Estate Tax for Middle Class Families. Previously, the Estate Tax Exemption was $1 million, as recently as 2003. My clients have welcomed the increase of the Estate Tax Exclusion over the past 17 years. The 99.5% Act includes provisions to:
- Reduce the Estate Exemption from $11.7 million to $3.5 million.
- Reduce the Unified Gift Exemption from $11.7 million to $1 million per lifetime.
- Raise the Estate Tax Rate to a range of 45-65%.
- Reduce the Annual Gift Tax Exclusion from $15,000 to $10,000 per donee, AND impose an annual limit of $20,000 per donor.
- Reduce certain tax benefits of Trusts, Generation Skipping Trusts, etc.
While I don’t cater to the ultra-wealthy, I do have a number of Middle Class families who this will impact. Ideas in Washington often stick around until they become reality. So, if these Acts don’t get passed now, don’t think that we will never hear them again. I don’t think there will be much empathy for families who have over $1 million in unrealized capital gains. However, in some cases, children will need to sell the houses, farms, and businesses they inherit to pay for these new taxes.
How Many Taxes?
Just to be clear, the Estate Tax is in addition to any Income Tax or Capital Gains Tax. Under the two proposals, an individual who dies with $5 million, would owe a 45% Estate tax on $1.5 million (the amount above $3.5 million). That’s a $675,000 Estate Tax Bill. Then, if their cost basis was $1 million and the unrealized capital gain was $4 million, the heirs would owe another 23.8% on $3 million of capital gains. That would be another $714,000 in taxes, for a total of $1,389,000. Presently, that tax would be zero, so we are talking about a huge increase. Let’s consider eight strategies if the step-up in basis is eliminated and other changes enacted.
Ways to Reduce Taxes under STEP and 99.5% Acts
1. If the Step-Up in Basis is eliminated, you may want to pay your capital gains gradually. Aim to keep your total unrealized gains under $1 million. For example, if you have $2 million in gains, perhaps you could harvest $100,000 of gains for the next 10 years. The goal is for you to pay the gains gradually at the 15% rate and save your heirs from being taxed at the 23.8% rate.
There is a separate proposal from Biden to increase the long-term capital gains rate for taxpayers in the highest tax bracket to 39.6%. Plus you would be subject to the 3.8% Medicare Surtax and state income taxes. And then, capital gains will be taxed at 43.4% to well over 50% in many states. The government would take more than half of your gains! If that happens, it will be vitally important to harvest gains regularly to avoid pushing your heirs into the top bracket.
2. Keep your high growth investments in a Roth IRA. Beneficiaries inherit a Roth IRA income tax-free. The Roth 401(k) looks better every year, versus a tax-deferred Traditional 401(k). If higher taxes are ahead, it may be preferable to use the Roth 401(k).
3. Gradually convert your Traditional IRAs to a Roth. By pre-paying the taxes today, you can both shrink the size of your taxable estate and reduce the Income tax burden on your heirs. The current tax rates will expire after 2025. The next five years is a good window to make Roth conversions.
Plan Your Giving
4. Give away your full Annual Gift Tax Exclusion every year. Reduce your Estate. Please note that the direct payment of someone’s medical or education bills does not count towards the annual exclusion. Do not reimburse your children for those expenses – make the payment directly to the doctor, college, etc.
5. If you make charitable donations, give away your most highly appreciated securities, rather than cash. This will reduce your taxable gains. If you do want to leave money to charity, make a charity a beneficiary of your Traditional IRA. If you are over age 70 1/2, you can make charitable donations of up to $100,000 a year from your IRA as Qualified Charitable Donations, or QCDs. QCDs can reduce your taxes so you have more budget to harvest capital gains from taxable accounts. You do not have to itemize to deduct QCDs.
Other Estate Tax Savings
6. Sell your primary residence. A couple, while alive, can exclude $500,000 in capital gains on the sale of their primary residence, as long as they lived there at least 2 of the past 5 years. ($250,000 for single filers.) Let your kids inherit the house and that capital gains exclusion may be lost. Better to sell it yourself and buy another house where you don’t have the big capital gains.
7. Maximize your contributions to 529 College Savings Plans for your children or grandchildren. These will pass outside of your taxable estate and will grow tax-free for the beneficiaries. 529 Plans will not be taxable under any of these proposals, and will become a more important estate planning tool.
8. Life Insurance proceeds are not subject to income tax to the beneficiary. Additionally, If we establish your insurance policy with an Irrevocable Life Insurance Trust (ILIT) as the owner, the life insurance will pass outside of your Estate and not be subject to the Estate Tax. This didn’t matter as much when the Estate Exemption was $11.7 million. ILITs will benefit a lot more families if the Estate Exemption is reduced to $3.5 million. Include the tax benefits, and Permanent Life Insurance looks even better as an asset.
Higher Taxes Ahead?
I am proud to be an American and pay my fair share of taxes. Still, these proposals represent a massive tax increase on a lot of families. Many professional couples have the potential to have over $3.5 million before they pass away, and easily over $1 million in capital gains, too. We will keep you posted on this legislation. It seems likely that the two Acts will be merged and some compromise reached before a final version is up for a vote.
Luckily, there is a lot we can do to offset some of these proposed taxes and reduce the burden on your Estate and Heirs. Last minute strategies won’t work here, though. Families need to be thinking about their transfer of wealth years and decades ahead of time. Have questions on strategies if the step-up in basis is eliminated? Feel free to drop me an email.