For a relatively small number of decedents, this plan could run headlong into Biden’s promise to not raise taxes on those with incomes below $400,000. Of course, the vast majority of decedents will have unrealized gains of far less than $1 million. Indeed, most will leave entire estates far below that threshold. Among people over 70, about 83 percent live in a household with total net worth of less than $1 million.
But some people with large unrealized gains will have been living on relatively low incomes. Imagine someone who is retired and living on Social Security, a modest pension, and some savings. But they still are holding that Microsoft stock they bought in 1987.
And applying the higher capital gains rate to top earners, who tend to be wealthy, creates bigger distortions because these taxpayers have many tools to avoid the tax. For example, when you inherit assets subject to estate taxes, the capital gains tax that you pay is based on when the asset was transferred to you, instead of when it was bought. This is known as a step-up in basis. Doubling the tax rate makes this provision much more attractive, and word is that the Biden plan nixes it. High earners can find other ways to get around this tax with the right advice. Certain asset classes, such as investment real estate, offer a chance to lower liability. We may also see more high-net-worth investors move further into the murky world of private equity, where values are easier to distort.
There are better ways to collect investment-income revenue. Getting rid of step-up in basis is a start; the administration could also take on the myriad loopholes that favor different asset classes. But these approaches don’t offer the stick-it-to-the rich satisfaction of doubling the rate on investment income—even if we all wind up paying for it.
Progressive Senate Democrats suggested that their new plan to tax unrealized capital gains at death should come with a $1 million per-person exemption, setting that line 10 times higher than an earlier Obama administration proposal and shielding a larger swath of upper income households.
A discussion draft released Monday by Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D., Md.) and others marks a first attempt to put details on an idea that President Biden endorsed during last year’s campaign. Capital-gains taxation is likely to spur significant debate in coming months as Democrats look to raise money from high-income households to pay for Mr. Biden’s proposed spending on infrastructure and social programs.
Under current law, someone who dies with appreciated assets—including homes, businesses and stocks in taxable accounts—doesn’t have to pay capital-gains taxes on that increase. Instead, the heirs have to pay capital-gains taxes only after they sell and only on gains after the original owner’s death. That “stepped-up basis” is a longstanding feature of the tax code, but it has come under increasing attacks from Democrats who see wealthy people’s profits escaping the income tax.
Many states have moved away from taxing assets after people die because of the harm to family businesses and farms, but a new proposal before state lawmakers would double Illinois’ estate tax.
House Bill 3920 would hike the existing state tax on estates of over $4 million to 9.95% from 4.95%. Unlike neighboring Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana and Missouri, Illinois is one of just a dozen states that still have an estate or inheritance tax. Tax Foundation analyst Katherine Loughead noted, “The top marginal estate tax rate under this proposal would become the highest in the country at 21%.”
While the bill’s sponsors intend the extra revenues to be used to support Illinoisans with disabilities, hiking the estate tax would squeeze family farmers, reduce the accumulation of productive assets, encourage spendthrift behavior, fuel tax avoidance and evasion, and drive wealth to other states.
Biden also wants other big tax changes, such as a higher business tax rate and higher rates for households earning more than $400,000. But he might want to start with capital-gains and estate taxes because they’re easier to target at the wealthy. The top 1% of earners capture 69% of long-term capital gains, while the top 20% of earners earn 90% of the capital gains. That shareholder class has benefited most from fiscal and monetary stimulus that has propped up the stock market for the last 11 months and helped with a decade of generous gains. If anybody can afford it, they can.
As for the estate tax, only about 1,900 U.S. estates are subject to any federal tax, which is less than one-tenth of 1% of the Americans who die in a given year. The number of estates subject to this tax was three times higher in 2009, the last year the exemption threshold was $3.5 million. Since Biden wants to return to that ceiling, assume he’d triple the number of families having to pay some estate tax. It still remains a vanishingly small number. Plus, unlike the wealth tax, it has been the law before, and there’s no question of whether it would work.
In addition to the federal estate tax, with a top rate of 40 percent, some states levy an additional estate or inheritance tax. Twelve states and the District of Columbia impose estate taxes and six impose inheritance taxes. Maryland is the only state to impose both.
Hawaii and Washington State have the highest estate tax top rates in the nation at 20 percent. Eight states and the District of Columbia are next with a top rate of 16 percent. Massachusetts and Oregon have the lowest exemption levels at $1 million, and Connecticut has the highest exemption level at $7.1 million.
Of the six states with inheritance taxes, Nebraska has the highest top rate at 18 percent. Maryland imposes the lowest top rate at 10 percent. All six states exempt spouses, and some fully or partially exempt immediate relatives.