With the Presidential election next month, investors may be wondering about what might happen to their taxes if Joe Biden were to win. Let’s take a look at his tax plan and discuss strategies which may make sense for high income investors to consider. I am sharing this now because we might consider steps to take before year end, which is a short window of time.
Let’s start with a few caveats. I am not endorsing one candidate or the other. I am not predicting Biden will win, nor am I bashing his proposals. This is not a political newsletter. Even if he is elected, it is uncertain that he will be able to enact any of these proposals and get them passed through the Senate. The discussion below is purely hypothetical at this point.
My job as a financial planner is to educate and advise my clients to navigate tax laws for their maximum legal benefit. I create value which can can save many thousands of dollars. Some of Biden’s proposals have the potential to raise taxes significantly on certain investors. If he does win, we may want to take steps before December 31, if we think his proposals could be enacted in 2021. I would do nothing now. I expect no significant changes under a continued Trump administration, but I will also be looking for tax strategies for that scenario.
Other Biden proposals will lower taxes for many people. For example, he proposes a $15,000 tax credit for first-time home buyers. I am largely ignoring the beneficial parts of his tax plan in this article, because those likely will not require advance planning.
Tax Changes Proposed by Biden
1. Tax increases on high earners. Biden proposes to increase the top tax rate from 37% back to 39.6%. He would eliminate the Qualified Business Income (QBI) Deduction, which would penalize most self-employed business owners. He would limit the value of itemized deductions to a 28% benefit. For those with incomes over $1 million, he proposes to increase the long-term capital gains and qualified dividend rate to the ordinary income rate, an increase from 20% to 39.6%, plus the 3.8% Medicare surtax. He proposes to add 12.4% in Social Security payroll taxes on income over $400,000.
- Accelerate earnings, capital gains, and Roth Conversions into 2020 to take advantage of current rates.
- Accelerate tax deductions into 2020, such as charitable donations or property taxes. Establish a Donor Advised Fund in 2020.
- Increase use of tax-free municipal bonds, and use ETFs for lower taxable distributions. Shift dividend strategies into retirement accounts.
- Use Annuities for tax deferral if you anticipate being in a lower bracket in retirement.
2. 26% retirement contribution benefit. Presently, your 401(k) contribution is pre-tax, so the tax benefit of a $10,000 contribution depends on your tax bracket. If you are in the 12% bracket, you would save $1,200 on your federal income taxes. If you’re in the 37% bracket, you’d save $3,700. Biden wants to replace tax deductibility with a flat 26% tax credit for everyone. On a $10,000 contribution to a 401(k), everyone would get the same $2,600 tax credit (reduction). This should incentivize lower income folks to put more into their retirement accounts, because their tax savings would go up, if they are in the 24% or lower bracket. For higher earners, however, this proposal is problematic. What if you only get a 26% benefit today, but will be in the 35% bracket in retirement? That would make a 401(k) contribution a guaranteed loss.
- High Earners may prefer the Roth 401(k) option if the current deduction is reduced on the Traditional IRA. Read more: The Secret Way to Contribute to a Roth IRA
3. End the step-up in cost basis on inherited assets. Currently, when you inherit a house or a stock, the cost basis is reset to its value as of the date of death. Under Biden’s plan, the original cost basis will carry over upon inheritance.
- If parents are in a lower tax bracket than their heirs, they may want to harvest long-term capital gains to prepay those taxes.
- Life Insurance would become more valuable as death benefits are tax-free. Or Life Insurance proceeds could be used to pay the taxes that would eventually be due on an inherited business or asset. Read more: The Rate of Return of Life Insurance.
4. Cut the Estate Tax Exemption in half. Presently, the Estate/Gift Tax only applies on Estates over $11.58 million (2020). Biden wants to cut this in half to $5.79 million (per spouse).
- If your Estate will be over $5.79 million, you may want to gift the maximum amount possible in 2020. Alternatively, strategies such as a Trust could be used to reduce estate taxes. (For example, the Intentionally Defective Grantor Trust (IDGT) or Grantor Retained Annuity Trust (GRAT).)
- Be sure to use all of your annual gift tax exclusion, presently $15,000 per person.
- Establish 529 Plans, which will be excluded from your estate.
- Shift Life Insurance out of your Estate, using an Irrevocable Life Insurance Trust (ILIT).
While we don’t know the outcome of the election, there could be valuable tax strategies under Biden. We will continue to analyze economic proposals from both candidates to develop planning strategies for our clients. When there are significant changes in tax laws, we want to be ahead of the curve to take advantage wherever possible.