"Death" of Estate Tax in 2010 creates Tax Trap for Spouses

My prior post was about the federal tax impact for single individuals who die in 2010 (unless Congress does as they have promised and create an estate tax retroactive to January 1, 2010 – we will have to wait and see if that happens and how it is constructed).

The news for single folks was not good. Mom dying with a $3.5 million estate in 2009 could leave it to son tax free. Mom dying with that same $3.5 million dollar estate, assuming the basis of her assets is $350,000, now creates a  federal capital gains tax of $277,500 for son (or $416,250 if he is in NJ).

The news for married folks is worse. In 2009 mom could leave $100 million (or whatever amount) to dad with no taxes whatsoever – there is an unlimited marital deduction from estate taxes (so long as your spouse is a US citizen). In 2010 only $4,300,000 will pass tax free to the surviving spouse.

The "death" of the estate tax creates a capital gains "trap" - and the “trap" catches assets passing to a surviving spouse that were never subject to tax under the estate tax.

What??? you say. How is it possible that by eliminating the estate tax you are creating a tax for widows and widowers? As I noted, due to the magic of Internal Revenue Code Section 1014, capital gains taxes disappear at death under the 2009 law. Section 1014 creates a “step-up in basis” by stating that when an estate is subject to estate taxes, the cost basis of inherited assets is the date of death value.  For example, mom bought stock for $10, and when she dies it is worth $100.  Dad  inherits stock and sells for $100.  His capital gains is $0 ($100 of value - $100 of basis =0).

However, in 2010 there will be no estate tax, and therefore no “step-up in basis”.  Instead, per Section 1022, Dad can apply $1,300,000 million plus $3,000,000 to add basis to the assets that mom has. How might this work? Let’s say mom has a $6 million estate, made up mostly of the family business she and dad still work in and some real estate. Assume mom has a $500,000 basis in the assets – all that appreciation has been due to increases in value over the years. If mom died in 2009, dad would get $6 million tax free. If mom dies in 2010, and dad sells everything since he doesn’t want to work without his life partner, he only has a basis of $4,800,000  ($500,000 of mom’s basis + $4,300,000 of allocated basis). Since he sold for $6 million, he has $1,200,000 of capital gains. He will owe the federal government $180,000, and if he lives in New Jersey, he will also owe the Garden State $90,000, for a total of $270,000. Remember, had mom died in 2009 when there was an estate tax in place, dad would have owed $0.

It bears repeating that all other concerns aside, this new tax regime where you need to track cost basis over a life time is a nightmare. How do you prove mom’s basis before she died was $500,000? Was every improvement tracked? What documentation will the IRS accept as proof? Will you have that documentation 30, 40, 50 years later?

My next post will address some planning opportunities (every cloud has a silver lining after all) that might exist in this new tax environment.

Estate Tax Opponents Shift Strategy

The Huffington Post heralds "An Estate Tax Victory By Any Other Name".  Contributor Chuck Collins advises that the richest (billionaires, not mere millionaires) families in America have recently changed their strategy from calling for the death of the so-called "death tax" to the reducing the impact of the same.

The federal estate tax effects less than 2% of estates nationwide.  However, Collins reports that "Wealthy families, including 18 dynastic families such as heirs to the Mars candy family fortune, had spent millions in lobbying funds to save billions in future taxes."   Now, they have apparently changed this mission statement to their lobbyist not to "kill the death tax" but to mitigate its impact.

I understand how the estate tax seems categorically unfair.  However, it bears reminding that the estate tax stands in lieu of the capital gain tax when a person dies. When you die, you may have assets that have increased in value between when you bought them and when you died.  For example, you bought stock in Acme, Inc. at $10 a share and it is now $100 a share.  If you sell that stock, during your lifetime, you owe capital gains tax on the gain of $90.  

However, due to Section 1014 of the Internal Revenue Code, when you heirs sell that same inherited stock, their cost basis is $100 (the tax basis is "stepped-up" to the date of death value, and all that appreciation during your lifetime disappears, as does the governments opportunity to tax it.  

The cost for the the "magic wand'? - the existence of an estate tax that taxes your assets at death (assuming you have more than $3.5 million from a federal estate tax perspective).  The kicker is that capital gains tax rates are 15% presently, and estate tax rates 45%, so perhaps it is the rates that need to be looked at, not the existence of the tax.