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 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.