The federal income tax code is very complicated stuff. That’s why most news outlets don’t even try to explain its bloated and byzantine byways to Americans — 70 percent of whom do not even itemize on their tax returns. Most taxpayers want to know only how much they’ll have to pay or get back. Or, in the case of the uber-rich and corporations, whether they’ll be able to insulate themselves from taxes altogether.
Under President Donald Trump’s tax proposals, the very wealthy appear likely to receive a big bonanza in tax relief, depending on what news sources you read. The New York Times, for example, warned about potentially dire consequences of Trump’s proposal to repeal the estate tax. Last November, the paper reported that if Trump’s plan passes, “a host of taxes that affect only the very richest Americans may be eliminated, along with almost all tax incentives to be philanthropic. As a result, wealthy families may find it much easier to amass dynastic levels of wealth.” It went on to say that the plan would “allow for the creation of generational wealth to rival that of the last Gilded Age, after which the modern estate tax was enacted in 1916.”
Another story in the Times business section said “the wealthy are already partying like it’s 1989. If Trump makes good on his tax cut promises, billions are expected to go back into their pockets.” The writer inexplicably sought out Robin Leach, whose 1980s TV show Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous got big ratings. “Cars will get bigger, houses will be more luxurious and it will be OK to wear jewelry and gowns again,” Mr. Leach, 75, enthused.
The current federal estate-tax exemption is $5.49 million per individual, almost $11 million per couple (surviving spouses can carry over each other’s unused exemptions). That means an individual can leave $5.49 million to heirs and pay no federal estate tax. Above that amount, the tax rate is 40 percent.
Current law also allows estate assets to receive a “stepped-up basis” designation which permits any capital gains to escape taxation when they are passed to heirs. In other words, a stock purchased for $100,000 that has appreciated in value to $1 million by the time of the original purchaser’s death, will escape capital gains taxes because the Internal Revenue Service “steps up” the initial purchase price to its valuation at the fine of transfer.
Trump’s plan seems to go much further, although it’s short on specifics and leaves a lot open to interpretation. It has a provision to repeal the estate tax entirely. Some analysts say it might then be replaced by a capital gains tax, which is currently 20 percent — half the estate tax. And even that 20 percent might be avoided, according to analysts at The Tax Foundation, who interpret Trump’s proposal to mean that “the gain would be subject to tax only when the inheritor sells the asset, not upon the death of the decedent.” Critics contend that means taxes may never be paid on a family’s real estate assets, like the Trumps’ hotels, residential buildings and golf courses; heirs could borrow against such holdings, while the properties themselves are passed down through generations.
We reached out to certified financial planner Mitchell E. Kauffman, ¬owner and managing director of Kauffman Wealth Management, an independent financial advisory services firm with offices in Pasadena and Santa Barbara. We asked his opinion of Trump’s tax plan and whether he’s noticed any jubilation among his wealthiest clients. Kauffman says no to the latter question and calls Trump’s tax plan, in his opinion, a “mixed bag, with a lot of moving parts,” many of which have not been clarified yet.
“Some things Trump is proposing are very friendly to high–net–worth people, but he’s also talking about putting limitations on deductions, which particularly affect mortgage deductions and charitable contributions. The affluent tend to be the strongest charitable donors,” he adds, so diminishing those deductions “most likely would not be very favorable to affluent people.” Nor would it be good for nonprofits, he adds. “We know that the National Council of Nonprofits has expressed concern over this, which they see as a potentially tremendous setback in their efforts to support charities and nonprofits.”
The estate tax, he says, is the easiest part of the plan to address. “Eliminating the estate tax has been a cherished goal of conservative Republicans for a number of years. And with a Republican congress and administration, most analysts are predicting that the estate tax will be eliminated — which would mean that when people pass, their assets would go to their heirs without any additional taxation. But estimates show that only .02 percent of all estates that are settled each year are subject to the federal estate tax, so proponents of this argue that the impact is more symbolic than financially impactful on the economy and the budget.”
A key concern for Kauffman is the possibility that if the estate tax is eliminated, the current stepped-up basis designation might also be eliminated. In that scenario, he says, heirs at all financial levels who inherit a property would receive the same cost base that the decedent had, which would create a much higher capital gains tax than under the current system.
Another key concern for Kauffman revolves around the proposed limits on deductions. “For a state like California, which has higher state and local income taxes, right now individuals can deduct those state and local taxes on their returns, which in essence puts some of the burden on the federal government. If the Feds limit deductions, it could prompt state and local governments to raise taxes in order to compensate.” And, Kauffman says, that limit on deductions might also impact how much mortgage interest people can deduct, “which could have a detrimental effect on affluent real-estate markets such as the one we have in Pasadena.”
The caveat to all this, Kauffman says, is that we’re just talking about proposals now, and we have no idea what Congress will actually pass into law that might differ in some basic directions or help offset any drawbacks.
A number of organizations have evaluated Trump’s tax proposal and come up with overview analyses, most of which predict tax cuts for all income brackets, with the biggest cuts going to the top tier of wealth. The Tax Policy Center of the Urban Institute and Brookings Institution, for example, predicts “the highest income taxpayers (.1 percent of the population, with annual incomes over $3.7 million) … would experience an average tax cut of nearly $1.1 million — over 14 percent of after-tax income. Households in the middle fifth in income distribution would receive an average tax cut of $1,010, or 1.8 percent of after-tax income, while the poorest fifth of households would see their taxes go down an average of $110, or .8 percent of after-tax income.” Another group, The Tax Foundation, estimated that middle-class taxpayers, on average, will see a nearly $500-per-year income boost from Trump’s plan.
The most publicized analysis was performed by NYU law professor Lily Batchelder, an expert on tax policy who worked for President Obama’s National Economic Council. Her study examined the likely effects of Trump’s proposed tax law changes on individuals and families. Batchelder’s findings, which Trump spokespeople call “pure fiction,” estimate that more than half of America’s single parents and one-fifth of all families with children could see their federal income taxes rise if Trump’s plan is enacted. His proposed tax breaks for these families would add up to less than those they receive today, she said. She concluded that the plan would eliminate the head-of-household filing status along with personal deductions and would impose higher rates on certain income, all of which would combine to raise taxes for many low- and middle-income taxpayers.