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.

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 Avoid Paying Capital Gains Tax When You Sell Your Home

Before 1997, once a homeowner reached the age of 55, they had the one-time option of excluding up to $125,000 of gain on the sale of their primary residence. Today any homeowner, regardless of age, has the option to exclude up to $250,000 of gain ($500,000 for married couples filing jointly) on the sale of a home.

What Is Capital Gains Tax?

When you sell property for more than you originally paid, it’s called a capital gain. You need to report your gain to the IRS, which will then tax the gain. Home sales can be excluded from this tax as long as the seller meets the criteria.

Who Qualifies for Capital Gains Tax Exemption?

In order to qualify a seller must meet the minimum IRS criteria:

  • You’ve owned the home for at least two years.
  • You’ve lived in the home as your primary residence for at least two years.
  • You haven’t exempted the gains on another home sale in the last two years.

How to Calculate Gains and Losses

By keeping records of the original purchase price, closing costs, and improvements put into the home (you’ll need to present records and receipts when submitting your taxes), you can avoid being taxed on a significant amount of the profit you make when selling your property.

If, for example, you buy your home for $150,000 and put $20,000 into qualifying upgrades, your cost basis would be $170,000. If you sell the home ten years later for $300,000, the ‘gain’ on your house would be $130,000 (sale price – cost basis), which would have no tax implications because you’d have met the required criteria.

What If You Have More than $250k ($500k for married couples) of Gains?

You’ll be taxed for the amount of gains above $250,000 or $500,000 for married couples filing jointly. To help reduce this amount, keep detailed records of any improvements you put into the home as some improvements can be added to your cost basis, and will thus lessen the amount that needs to be reported.