Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Stayin' Alive: How to Cheat The Estate Tax

You still can't take it with you. But by timing your death, you can leave more of it to your heirs.

As ghoulish as it sounds, thousands of high-net-worth Americans who care about the financial well-being of their heirs have a powerful tax incentive to survive until at least Jan. 1, 2009. On that day, the federal estate-tax exclusion is scheduled to jump to $3.5 million from $2 million this year.

"No respirator plugs will be pulled in December," predicts Michael Graetz, a Yale Law School professor and co-author of a 2005 book on the estate tax, "Death by a Thousand Cuts."

The top estate-tax rate, now 45%, won't change. But raising the exclusion by $1.5 million could translate into tax savings of hundreds of thousands of dollars for heirs fortunate enough to have a wealthy benefactor who continues breathing until New Year's Day.

Some affluent Americans already are keenly aware of the increased importance of staying healthy. "It's less important to have a lawyer for sophisticated estate planning than to have a good cardiologist," says Douglas E. Schoen, a New York political consultant and author who expects to leave a large estate.

The imperative to stay alive is likely to take on growing importance in the final weeks of 2008, especially for wealthy people in poor health. But based on current law, there's an even bigger incentive to survive until 2010. In that year, the federal estate tax is scheduled to disappear entirely, only to reappear again in 2011 with a $1 million exclusion for 2011.

Don't bet on total repeal of the estate tax, though, even for one year. Financial planners, accountants and lawyers expect Congress and the next president -- whether it be Sen. Barack Obama (D., Ill.) or Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.) -- to reach a compromise that will retain the estate tax in some form.

"The one thing we all know cannot happen is what current law says will happen," says Mr. Graetz, referring to the current law killing the estate tax in 2010 and reviving it in 2011 with only a $1 million exclusion. "That means Congress must act next year, no matter who's president."

So what will Congress do? Although nobody knows, it's significant that, under both candidates' plans, only a tiny fraction of all estates would get hit by the federal estate tax. "Our calculations from IRS and other data sources indicate that Obama would tax less than one-half of one percent of all estates of people dying in the U.S. -- and McCain would tax less than one-quarter" of one percent, says Clint Stretch, managing principal of tax policy at Deloitte Tax LLP in Washington.

So what should well-to-do families do until the dust settles? For a look at what could lie ahead, we've provided, below, the proposals of Sens. Obama and McCain, based on interviews with their advisers, and calculations done by Deloitte for The Wall Street Journal on how families would be affected by them -- as well as advice from tax planners.

The Obama Plan. Sen. Obama proposes a $3.5 million exclusion in 2009 and thereafter, with a top rate at 45%. His plan will "fully repeal the estate tax for 99.7% of households," says Jason Furman, Sen. Obama's economic policy director.

"He would add certainty and stability to the tax code by making the 2009 estate tax parameters permanent, exempting estates of up to $7 million for a married couple," Mr. Furman says. The Obama plan "retains the estate tax for the top 0.3% of estates in order to restore fairness to the tax system, helping to pay for a tax cut for 95% of workers and their families."

The McCain Plan. Sen. McCain proposes raising the exclusion to $5 million per person and cutting the top federal estate-tax rate to 15%, says Douglas Holtz-Eakin, the senator's senior policy adviser and a former director of the Congressional Budget Office. This plan "should go into place ASAP after he is elected," Mr. Holtz-Eakin says.

"If the political climate makes it next to impossible to achieve full repeal, then Congress should look towards a compromise," says Mr. Holtz-Eakin, referring to President Bush's unsuccessful efforts to kill the estate tax permanently. He calls Sen. McCain's plan "a compromise that holds the potential for breaking the logjam and providing some much-needed certainty."

Cutting the tax rate to 15% "would link the death tax with the current capital-gains tax rate," Mr. Holtz-Eakin says. "By doing so, Americans will not be forced to pay more in death than they would if they had sold property prior to their death." He also says that a $5 million exclusion "is generally thought by many to be the appropriate size to help small-business owners avoid cash-flow difficulties" upon the death of a family member.

Stepping Up. Despite their differences, both senators support retaining the current system for valuing stocks, mutual-fund shares and other inherited property whose value has increased over the years. This is important to many heirs because it can affect how much they eventually owe in capital-gains tax, if anything at all, when they sell inherited property.

Suppose your aunt dies and leaves you an assortment of stocks and fund shares that have risen sharply in value over the years. Under the current system, your cost "basis" for purposes of calculating future taxes would typically be their value on the date of her death (or, in certain circumstances, six months later). This system often is referred to as "stepped-up basis" or "step-up in basis," since the value of the appreciated asset typically gets stepped up to fair market value. The current step-up system is scheduled to continue through 2009, and then undergo major changes in 2010.

What You Could Pay. Under both candidates' plans, very few estates would have to pay federal estate tax. How much heirs ultimately pay could vary widely depending on such factors as state tax laws. But the McCain plan, if enacted, generally would mean much-larger savings for heirs of substantial estates than the Obama plan.

Heirs to the biggest fortunes should care far more about what happens to the tax rate than the exclusion amount. "The wealthiest Americans would benefit more from McCain's tax-rate decrease than from his exemption increase," says John Olivieri, a partner at the law firm White & Case in New York.

Analysts at Deloitte Tax estimate the federal estate tax for a hypothetical $5 million estate under the McCain plan would be $675,000 less for 2009 than under the Obama plan. For a $10 million estate, the savings under the McCain plan would be nearly $2.2 million. For a $50 million estate, the difference would be more than $14 million. For a $100 million estate, the difference would be more than $29 million. (These numbers reflect federal tax only; many states levy their own taxes.)

Getting Ready. Besides staying in good health, consider a few other ideas. For starters, make sure you have all your key documents in place and up to date, such as your will, durable power of attorney, health-care proxy and living will, says Mr. Olivieri. "An up-to-date will should contain a plan flexible enough to deal with the changing tax landscape," he says. Also make sure those you trust know where all these documents are located.

One of the easiest techniques is to take advantage of the annual gift-tax exclusion. That allows you to give away as much as $12,000 a year to anyone you wish -- and to as many people as you want -- without having to worry about taxes or even file a return. In addition, you can pay someone else's tuition or medical expenses without having those payments count toward the annual limit -- as long as you make your payments directly to the educational or medical institutions. Many wealthy people use the gift-tax exclusion to reduce the size of their taxable estates.

There are many other techniques worth considering, including setting up various types of trusts, such as a "grantor-retained annuity trust," or GRAT, says Don Weigandt, a managing director of J.P. Morgan Private Bank in Los Angeles. This type of trust is popular among those with assets expected to increase in value. Another idea: Consider moving from a high-tax state, such as New York or New Jersey, to one such as Florida or Nevada.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Obama's Social Security Fine Print

Last week, Barack Obama revealed his plan to shore up Social Security's shaky finances by raising the income level on which the payroll tax is applied. Currently, incomes above $102,000 are exempt, with that threshold rising every year indexed to wage inflation. Mr. Obama would keep that limit in place, but then assess payroll taxes on incomes above $250,000, which his campaign claims would apply to only the richest 3% of Americans.

Mr. Obama angered liberals last year when he admitted that there was a "Social Security crisis." But at least Mr. Obama's base should be appeased now that his solution to the "crisis" is to soak the rich. One liberal columnist actually noted with glee the fact that this would take us back to top tax rates not seen since the 1970s.

According to the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center, Mr. Obama's new tax would siphon off 0.4% of gross domestic product annually. Combined with Mr. Obama's other tax-hike initiatives, "the total tax on labor would be close to 60 percent. In high-tax states like California and New York, the top rate would be even higher."

Would it help Social Security's financing problems? Mr. Obama has no idea. One of his senior economic advisers admitted to me that no one on the campaign has run any detailed models or performed any rigorous analysis. When one proposes an enormous tax increase, shouldn't there at least be a spreadsheet somewhere?

But the most alarming thing about Mr. Obama's proposal is that the $250,000 threshold, above which the payroll tax would be applied, refers to household income, not individual income. So it's quite deceptive when he claims that the $250,000 threshold will "ensure that lifting the payroll tax cap does not ensnare any middle class Americans."

Suppose your household consists of you and your spouse, each earning wages of $150,000 per year. Currently, you are each subject to the payroll tax up to $102,000 of wages, so together you are taxed on $204,000. Under the Obama plan, you'd be taxed again on another $50,000 of wages.

At the current payroll tax rate of 12.4% – 6.2% from wage-earners and 6.2% from their employers – your household would be looking at a tax hike of $6,200 per year. You probably didn't consider yourself rich before, and you certainly won't after paying that tax bill.

But that tax bill could be higher still. While the payroll tax has always been calculated just on wages from labor, Mr. Obama hasn't decided yet what forms of income will be included in the $250,000 threshold. It's an open question whether it might include interest on savings and capital gains income.

And neither has Mr. Obama said whether the rich – and, truth be told, the middle class – paying his new higher taxes will get correspondingly higher Social Security benefits when they retire. Throughout the history of the Social Security program, there has always been a connection between what you contribute in taxes and what you get back in benefits. If Mr. Obama uncaps the wages subject to tax, but doesn't uncap benefits, then he has severed the link between them. Social Security would stand revealed not as a work-related contributory retirement system, but simply as a tax-funded welfare and income-redistribution program.

And for all that, Mr. Obama's proposal won't help Social Security's long-run solvency problems.

According to the Social Security Administration actuaries, uncapping all wages subject to the payroll tax (not just those above $250,000) doesn't make much difference to the system's long-run solvency. If the increased payroll tax payments earn increased benefits, then only about one third of the system's 75-year shortfall is addressed. Even if there is no corresponding benefit increase, only about half the shortfall is addressed.

Remember, that inadequate result is what you get when all wages are subject to payroll taxes. Mr. Obama's plan – even with his household definition of $250,000 income – would collect far less than that. No wonder Mr. Obama's economic advisers aren't interested in doing any detailed analysis.

Worst of all, even the small contribution to Social Security solvency that Mr. Obama's plan might make is entirely illusory. In fact, the more taxes his plan collects, the worse Social Security's long-term situation gets. That's because all plans based on collecting taxes and saving them in the Social Security Trust Fund for future benefit payments rely on the U.S. government being able to redeem the Treasury bonds that trust fund holds.

There's only one place that the money to redeem those bonds can come from: taxes. So ironically, any tax dollars collected today will have to be collected all over again – plus interest. You like the idea of paying more taxes today for Mr. Obama's Social Security plan? Then just wait 20 years or so, because you'll get to pay more taxes all over again.