How Does Biden Plan to Change the Way the US Taxes Unrealized Capital Gains at Death?

President Biden campaigned on a promise to accomplish his progressive agenda by never raising taxes on citizens making less than $400,000 annually. However, his recent proposal to tax unrealized capital gains at death may impact a broader group. Here’s what to know.

What Are Capital Gains?

A capital gain is the rise in the value of an asset over time. For example, if you buy stock for $50 and its value increases to $200, you have accumulated a capital gain of $150. If you were to sell that stock, the $150 gain is said to be “realized”, but if you were to hold onto it, the gain would be considered “unrealized”.

Biden’s Plan

Biden’s plan to levy a tax on unrealized appreciation of assets passed on at death would be done in a move that eliminates a tax-planning tactic known as a “step-up in basis”. The “step-up in basis” permits heirs to minimize taxes when they sell holdings they’ve inherited because current law dictates that any gains accrued during their lifetimes go tax-free. By taxing the unrealized gain at death, this loophole would be closed and heirs would get hit with taxes upon the transfer. This means that appreciated assets transferred at death would be subject to two taxes: a capital gains tax and an estate tax. While it’s possible that the capital gains tax could be deductible in calculating the estate tax, the total tax increase would be substantial for appreciated assets held at death.

Increasing the Capital Gains Tax

The capital gains tax under Biden’s plan would be more severe than the current framework. The plan would raise the total top rate on capital gains, currently 23.8% for most assets, to 40.8%. It would apply the same tax to unrealized capital gains at death, exempting the first $1 million ($2 million for a married couple) plus $250,000 for a personal residence.

Exceptions and Special Rules

  • As noted above, the first $1 million of unrealized gains ($2 million for married couples) would be exempt, as would gains on a personal residence of up to $250,000 ($500,000 for a married couple).
  • Taxes on assets transferred to a spouse would be delayed until the surviving spouse dies or sells the inherited assets. Assets donated to charity would be exempt.
  • Personal property like household furnishings and personal effects (not including collectibles) would be exempt.
  • Some small business stock could be exempt.
  • Taxes would be deferred for most family-owned companies until the business is sold or no longer controlled by the family.
  • Assets held by trusts and partnerships would be subject to different rules.
  • Generally, the tax would pertain to those who die after December 31, 2021.

A Small Number of the Under-$400,000 Set Could be Affected

This plan could interfere with Biden’s oath to avoid increasing taxes on those with incomes below $400,000. Although most descendants will inherit estates far less than the $1 million threshold, there is a subset of citizens with large unrealized gains who live on relatively low incomes. Think of a retiree who depends on Social Security and various savings, but still holds decades-old high-earning stocks. Or consider a widow who has very little assets other than the house that has appreciated in value significantly during the years she’s lived there. If the “step-up in basis” is eliminated by the time an heir inherits the house, they may be subject to significant taxable gains.

A Will vs. A Living Revocable Trust: What’s the Difference and Which Do You Need?

Both a will and a living revocable trust are valuable estate tools that transfer wealth to heirs—and both can work together to establish a complete estate plan—but what’s the difference between each, and which do you really need? We’ll go over this in the article below.

What is a Will?

A will is a written document that expresses what should happen to your property and assets after you die. As such, it becomes active upon your death. You can also appoint guardians for your children, name an executor, forgive debts, and specify how to pay your taxes.

What is a Living Revocable Trust?

Unlike a will, which becomes active after your death, a living trust kicks in immediately, and you are fully in charge of your trust while you are living. After your death, the person you appoint as the successor trustee will handle your affairs as you’ve outlined them in the document. There are also irrevocable trusts, which are generally created for tax purposes. Unlike revocable trusts, which can be changed at any time by the grantor, an irrevocable trust cannot be amended after it is established.

The Main Difference Between a Will and a Living Revocable Trust

After your death, the appointed executor of your will must work with the probate court to sort the terms of your will. This is a highly-structured process that can be drawn-out and expensive. A living trust, however, appoints a trustee to manage and distribute trust property after your death. Because the trust owns the assets and the trust hasn’t died, there is no need for probate. A living trust is a private contract between you as the grantor and the trust entity. Generally, the grantor serves as the trustee of his own revocable living trust, thus managing it during his lifetime. A successor trustee can be appointed to step in and oversee handling of the trust when the grantor dies, settling it and allocating its property to the beneficiaries named in the trust documents.

Which is Better, a Will or a Trust?

A trust simplifies the procedure of transferring an estate after your death while preventing a lengthy and possibly costly course of probate. However, if you have minor children, creating a will that names a guardian is crucial in protecting both the minors and any inheritance. The decision between a will and a trust is a personal choice, though some experts advise to have both. While a trust is typically expensive and legally complex, a will is generally less expensive and easier to establish.

Which Do You Need?

Almost everyone should have a will, but not everyone will need a living trust. If you have minor children as well as property and assets for which you would feel more settled knowing they were in a trust, then having both a will and a living revocable trust may make sense. Keep in mind that they are two separate legal documents, so one does not override the other unless issues arise, in which case a living trust will likely trump a will because a trust is its own entity.

No matter which you choose, it’s important to get your affairs in order earlier rather later. If you have minor children, establishing a will that grants guardianship should be a priority. Beyond that, making an estate plan now can save money and time later, especially for the loved ones you would be leaving behind.

Break Bad Financial Habits and Make Your Money Work for You in 2020

Even those of us who have the best intentions with our money can fall victim to bad financial habits, which can cause unnecessary stress and anxiety. Some of the most common bad habits we fall into include:

  • Impulse spending
  • Not budgeting (or not sticking to a budget)
  • Spending more than you earn
  • Relying on credit cards
  • Falling into the trap of convenience

Breaking bad financial habits takes time, intention, and effort. Below are some ideas for starting better habits to get your money to work for you.

Start an Emergency Savings Account

This isn’t anything you haven’t been told before, but if you want to quit the cycle of credit card debt, you’re going to need a savings account to fall back on in times of financial hardship or unforeseen costs. Start with a goal of saving $1,000 specifically for emergencies, so next time your car needs work, for example, you’ll have the funds to pay for it rather than sinking farther into credit card debt.

Budget

Nothing says “taking control of my money” like creating a budget that works for you. When you assign a purpose to every dollar, not only are you actively monitoring your income and spending habits, but you’re avoiding debt and reaching your financial goals more quickly. The trick is sticking to it. It’s important to track your spending monthly, and revisit your budget at the beginning of each month, adjusting as needed with the goal of spending less than you bring in. If you know you have a bigger expense coming up later that month, or even in a few months, you’ll have a big picture of your finances and you can begin to make a plan for saving. You can also decide what your priorities will be for that month, and start saving toward your goals.

Make a Plan to Get Out of Debt

Credit cards, student loans, and car payments eat into your budget, and limit the amount of money you can put toward retirement and other financial goals. In short, debt limits your choices.

One popular and time-tested method of getting out of debt is often referred to as the snowball method. You start by paying off the smallest debt, then once that’s paid off, you add that monthly payment toward the next smallest debt until that one’s paid off. For example, if your smallest debt is a doctor bill for $200 and you make arrangements to pay $50 per month until it’s paid off, for the next four months you’ll pay that $50 to your doctor’s office while paying the minimum on every other debt. Once the doctor bill is paid in full, you add that $50 to the monthly payment of your next smallest debt while continuing to pay the minimum on your other larger debts. As each debt is paid off, you’re adding more to the next debt and building momentum until even your largest debt is paid off.

Save for the Future and Start Investing

Once you set up an emergency savings account and pay off your debt, you can begin to save more aggressively. The first step is to bulk up your emergency savings fund to the equivalent of six months of living expenses so you’ll have something to fall back on in case of a major unexpected life event, such as a job loss. Once this is accomplished, you can grow your wealth by investing your money. You’ll need to work with a financial planner to help advise you in investments and diversify your portfolio.

Stay Focused

It’s easy to get off track and lose focus when paying off debt, keeping on track with your budget, and saving for the future, so it helps to have some goals in mind. Whether your goals include a vacation home on a tropical island, paying for you child’s college education, or achieving early retirement (or maybe all three), keep these goals at the forefront of your mind whenever you lose steam. You can even create a vision board and put it someplace where you’ll see it every day, reminding you that good financial habits will pay off in the end.

If you have questions on setting healthy financial goals or would like to discuss your 2019 tax return, please feel free to email me at pmcallister@mkrcpas.com or call 317.549.3091.

Essential Year-End Tax Tips

As the clock winds down to the end of the year, there are a few last-minute money moves to make in order to lower your tax bill.

Maximize Your 401(k) and HSA Contributions

While tax deductible contributions can be made to traditional and Roth IRA accounts until April 15 of 2020, the deadline for 401(k)s and HSA accounts is December 31 of this year. You can contribute up to $19,000 to a 401(k), 403(b), most 457 plans, and federal Thrift Savings Plans (plus $6,000 in catch-up contributions for those who are 50 or older). As for HSA accounts, the maximum contribution for 2019 is $3,500 for individuals and $7,000 for family coverage. And if you’re 55 or older you can contribute an additional $1,000.

Start Thinking About Retirement Contributions for 2020

Retirement contributions to 401(k)s have increased for 2020. Individuals can contribute $19,500 next year, and those 50 or older can contribute an additional $6,500. If you prefer to spread out your contributions evenly throughout the year, you’ll need to adjust your monthly contribution amounts by January.

Take Advantage of Your Flexible Spending Account

Funds in a flexible spending account revert back to the employer if not spent within the calendar year. Some companies might provide a grace period extending into the new year, but others end reimbursements on December 31.

Prevent Taxes on an RMD with Charitable Donations

After seniors reach age 70 ½ they must take a required minimum distribution each year from their retirement accounts (an exception to this rule is a Roth IRA account). Seniors who aren’t dependent on this money for living expenses should consider having it sent directly from the retirement account to a charity as a qualified charitable distribution, effectively preventing the money from becoming taxable income.

Consider a Roth Conversion

Because withdrawals from traditional IRAs are taxed in retirement while distributions from Roth IRAs are tax-free, you might think about converting some funds from a traditional IRA to a Roth IRA. Just be sure this move doesn’t tip you into the next tax bracket. You’ll need to pay taxes on the initial conversion, but the money will then grow tax-free in the Roth IRA.

Take Stock of Losses

Sell any losses in stocks for a deduction of up to $3,000, but be aware that purchasing the same or a substantially similar stock within 30 days of the sale would violate the wash-sale rule. If that happens your capital loss would be deferred until you sell the new shares.

Meet with a Tax Advisor

If you’re unsure whether or not you’re ending the year in a favorable tax bracket, check in with an advisor who can identify actionable steps to reduce taxable income through retirement contributions or itemized deductions.

Holiday Spending: Make a Financial Plan and Avoid Going into Debt

With fall in full swing, it’s the perfect time to start drafting a financial game plan for the holidays in order to avoid overspending, plunging into debt, and piling stress on top of an already stressful season. Here’s how you can hatch a holiday plan for this year and start saving for next year.

Create a Holiday Budget

You’ll first need a solid understanding of your financial situation. How much do you have in savings, and how much of that can be allocated to holiday spending? Or maybe you don’t have enough in savings, or you don’t want to dip into savings, preferring to rely on your discretionary income after monthly bills have been paid? Once you have a full picture, create a budget that works with your current financial circumstances.

It also helps to be mindful of optional spending over the next couple of months. For example, cut back on dining out and retail therapy. You could even cancel some monthly subscription services until after the holidays.

Next, using your budget as a guide, make a list of the items that you’d like to get for everyone on your list along with a set price point for each item. This might take a little research, but having a specific gift in mind and knowing the average market price will help to avoid making impulse purchases. This will also help to cut through the noise of holiday ads and promotions and hone in on sales and discounts for only the items on your list.

Don’t Lose Sight of Additional Holiday Spending

Keep in mind that gifts aren’t the only expense that will cut into your budget. Plan to be frugal with holiday meal shopping, including extra treats and baked goods. Don’t purchase something simply for the sake of tradition and try instead to tailor your holiday meal planning around the actual likes of the people who will be attending your get-togethers. This cuts back on both food waste and money waste. Other often overlooked expenses include gift wrap, holiday cards, mailing costs, and travel expenses.

Make a Plan for Next Year

To make a plan for next holiday season, start by tracking your spending during this holiday season to get a blueprint for average expenses. Then, decide on which strategies you’ll employ for next year’s savings. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Open a holiday savings account. These are typically offered by credit unions, and they are often locked so you can’t access them until the holiday season.
  • Set aside a portion of every paycheck specifically for holiday spending. You can even set up automatic transfers into a separate savings account, building the habit of saving in a “set it and forget it” way.
  • Try the popular 52-week savings challenge. Start by saving $1 the first week of December, then $2 the next week, $3 the following week, and so on. By next holiday season you’ll have nearly $1,400 saved.

With a little foresight and preparation, holiday expenses don’t need to add stress to the festivities of the season.

How to Claim Social Security Survivor Benefits

The Social Security Administration sends survivor benefits to about 6 million Americans every month, directed to widows, widowers, and children who have experienced the loss of someone who has paid into the social security program. Read on to find out who is eligible to receive survivor benefits and how to collect them.

Who is Eligible to Receive Survivor Benefits?

If you were married to your spouse for at least nine months before their death, you are eligible for social security survivor benefits. (The one exception to this length-of-marriage stipulation is if you are caring for a child of the deceased who is under 16 years old). Children of the deceased who are under 18 years old may also receive survivor benefits, as can disabled children under the age of 22. Finally, parents, stepparents, or adoptive parents who are at least age 62 and were dependent upon the deceased could potentially qualify for survivor benefits.

When Can You Begin Social Security Survivor Benefits?

Surviving spouses can begin collecting survivor benefits as early as age 60, but this will result in only about 70% of the amount the survivor could get if they wait until their survivor full retirement age, which is 66 for people born between 1945-1956 and gradually increases to age 67 for those born in 1962 or later. There are some exceptions to this as well: if you are disabled, you may begin collecting survivor benefits at age 50; any surviving spouse can collect a one-time death benefit payment of $255 at any age; and as noted above, survivors who are caring for a child of the deceased who is under age 16 can collect at any age.

How to Claim Social Security Widow and Widower Benefits

First, the death needs to be reported, which is a task that most funeral homes include as part of their service as long as the social security number of the deceased is provided. Documents needed to apply for Social Security survivor benefits include:

  • Proof of death for the deceased in the form of a death certificate
  • Social Security number of the deceased
  • Social Security numbers of the survivor and any dependent children
  • Your birth certificate
  • Your marriage certificate
  • Most current W-2 forms of the deceased
  • Bank information for direct deposit

Once everything is submitted, you’ll be notified of your eligibility to receive survivor benefits.

How Much Will You Receive?

The amount you receive is determined by the deceased’s earnings and whether or not the deceased was collecting benefits (either full or reduced) at the time of death. The basic breakdown looks like this:

  • For couples who hadn’t started receiving benefits: it’s recommended for the highest earner of the two to wait until age 70 to begin Social Security benefits. This generates a larger monthly benefit amount that becomes the survivor benefit if and when the first spouse passes away.
  • If both spouses had already started claiming: the higher benefit amount becomes the survivor benefit while the lesser of the two benefit amounts will stop.
  • If the deceased spouse had already begun benefits, but the survivor had not:

The surviving spouse will need to decide when they will claim survivor benefits in a way that is likely to give them more lifetime income.

In addition to whether or not either spouse was already receiving Social Security benefits at the time of death, the actual dollar amount a survivor receives will depend on how much money the deceased spouse paid into Social Security over their lifetime.