Posts Tagged ‘2010’

Estate Tax or Death Tax — Who Actually Pays Any?

AUGUST 9, 2010 VOLUME 17 NUMBER 25
Want to read about the debate over estate tax reform/repeal/reinstatement? There is plenty of literature. You can easily learn about the history of the estate tax (going back to 1797 in the United States, or to the 7th century BCE elsewhere).

Want more? You can see the arguments in favor and against the estate tax, repeated endlessly, in any number of articles. Is the estate tax unfair double taxation, or an important tool to prevent outrageous asset accumulations?

How about real-life stories? You already knew that George Steinbrenner saved his family $600 million by managing to die during 2010 (although it turns out that the actual savings is much murkier and, probably, not near that number). But you probably have not heard of Iowan Eugene Sukup, who at 81 is contemplating what will happen to his considerable estate — and the family business — when he dies.

Maybe you make your decisions on the basis of the positions of famous people. How about what Bill Gates, Sr. (not the software innovator, but his father, who has spoken and written extensively on this subject) says about the estate tax? How about Alan Greenspan, former Federal Reserve chairman? Turns out it’s easier to find wealthy people speaking out in favor of the estate tax (albeit a “reasonable” estate tax) than against the tax altogether, but perhaps that is just because it is such a surprise, at least at first blush.

You know what is missing from most of the debate — and reporting — on the estate tax? Real numbers. Except for that last reference (the Washington Post’s “PostPartisan” blog), there is almost no mention in any of the articles collected here about how many people actually pay — or would pay — an estate tax on death. Are you curious? You may be surprised by the answer.

The best reference we could find is a December 18, 2009, report from the Congressional Budget Office. The non-partisan CBO manages, in a dense but readable 12-page report, to explain the interrelationship of the estate tax with gift taxation and the generation-skipping tax, provide a history of the revenue generated through the estate tax (shown as a percentage of all federal receipts), and describe the effect of all of the major proposals being considered by Congress.

It turns out that in 2004, when the estate tax applied only to estates worth more than $1.5 million, there were 19,294 estate tax returns on which the decedent’s estate owed any money to the federal government. That amounts to .82% of all deaths in 2004. Compare that to 1.14% of deaths in 2003 and 1.17% in 2002; in both of those years the estate tax applied to estates worth more than $1 million. Those details, incidentally, come from the Internal Revenue Service’s Spring, 2009 Statistics of Income Bulletin (if you try to locate the figures yourself, you’ll want to scroll down to page 222 of that lengthy report). The IRS has updated the figures for 2005 and 2006 and, not surprisingly, the percentage of taxable estates has dropped further. In 2005 (with a taxable level of $1.5 million, the same as in 2004), the percentage of taxable estates was .95. In 2006, when the taxable estate level went to $2 million, the number of estates reaching that level dropped to .63%. That was the smallest percentage since at least 1934, when the current tax code was first adopted.

So what does this all mean? Basically, with an estate tax level at about $1 – 1.5 million, right around 1% of decedents will pay any tax at all. At the $2 million level, that percentage drops to about 2/3 of 1%. If Congress proves to be paralyzed, by partisanship or otherwise, and the estate tax drops back to the $1 million level in 2011, then about 1% of decedents’ estates will, presumably, have to pay estate taxes.

That is not the end of the story, of course. It is not, for instance, the same thing as saying that 1% of people are worth a million dollars, or slightly more. Why are they not the same thing? For a variety of reasons, including:

  1. Decedents are, of course, older than the general population. It is likely that the decedents in a given year are somewhat wealthier than the population as a whole, but the statistics we have described here do not show that or even hint at how much difference we should expect. One thing the statistics DO take into account: the IRS removed deaths of children from the figures, so the percentage of ALL deaths paying estate taxes would be slightly smaller.
  2. Decedents with estates of just over the taxable limit have a variety of estate planning options to avoid any estate taxes. Married couples can plan to preserve the exemption for each spouse, those with slightly larger estates can use lifetime gifting, and devices like family limited partnerships and limited liability companies can reduce the value of the estate for tax purposes. Money left to charities or surviving spouses escapes taxation altogether. It is likely that a significant percentage of decedents transferred an amount of property to heirs that would have been taxable but for such techniques.
  3. Even if 99% of decedents avoid estate taxes completely, that does not mean that the estate tax system had no effect on any of them. Presumably another small but significant percentage (perhaps 1-5%) expended at least some funds on the estate planning necessary to avoid estate taxation. We know of no study indicating how many have done so, or at what cost.
  4. Inflation (if there is any) and wealth concentration trends will have continued since the 2002/2003 figures were calculated. In those years the percentage of decedents’ estates paying any estate tax were 1.17 and 1.14, respectively; of course, with the significant reductions in net worth for many Americans since those years the figures might actually drop for 2011. Over time, however, the percentage should be expected to grow. As it did, for instance, between 1987 and 1999, when the estate tax level remained constant at $600,000. During those twelve years, the percentage of estates subject to any tax increased from .88% (in 1987) to 2.3% (in 1999).

Of course, the estate tax level increased to $3.5 million in 2009 (before being eliminated entirely in 2010). The result of that near-doubling of the taxable level in one year has not yet been calculated and published. It will be interesting to see.

One final thought about the statistics developed by the IRS and the CBO: in 2004, with a taxable level higher than ever before and with the smallest percentage of decedent’s estates paying any tax whatsoever in the history of the modern estate tax, the IRS brought in a total of $22.2 billion. That was the fourth-highest haul in the history of the tax, and was about $4.5 higher than the two previous years, with taxable levels at $1 million (rather than the $1.5 million of 2004).

Estate Taxes, Crystal Balls and What Might Happen This Year

MAY 24, 2010  VOLUME 17, NUMBER 17
There is no estate tax in 2010. But there might be. When will we know? What should you do?

Estate planning attorneys have joked darkly (as a group, we often have slightly off-kilter senses of humor) that 2010 is the year to die. Because of Congressional plans first adopted a decade ago, the federal estate tax has long been scheduled to disappear this year, but to return in 2011 with a sort of taxman’s vengeance. Although estates of less than $3.5 million were exempted from estate tax last year, next year the limit is scheduled to drop to $1 million.

For years we estate planners have all reassured our clients that Congress would not — could not — let that happen. Many of us even confidently predicted what Congress would do. Most of us agreed that it was likely Congress would leave the estate tax in place, with the $3.5 million exemption figure or maybe a slightly higher number, and tinker with some of the mechanics. Don’t worry, we all said, there is no way the estate tax will return to the $1 million level — nor will it disappear altogether in 2010, even just for a year.

We were all wrong. Congress has been unable to reach any agreement about how to act, it is now 2010 and there is no estate tax.

But there might be. Speculation has swirled for months about whether Congress has the power to reinstate the estate tax now and make it retroactive to the first of the year. Even if it is legal (and it is not completely clear that it is), every passing day makes it politically less palatable. One idea now being discussed: could Congress reinstate the estate tax but let the executor of each estate decide whether to apply the “new” estate tax or the eliminated estate tax rules?

Why would anyone want to be subject to the estate tax? Because of something called “carryover basis.” As the rules now stand for the estate of someone dying in 2010, there is no estate tax but accumulated capital gains can be taxable if and when heirs sell the property they inherit — though there is $1.3 million of capital gains avoidance given to the estate of each decedent.

Let’s imagine a scenario: because you are a market genius, you bought $1 million worth of McDonald’s stock in early 2003. It is now worth about $5 million. That is the only thing you own, and you are not feeling very healthy. Now assume Congress adopts a new estate tax for 2010, sets a $5 million exemption amount, and allows your heirs to decide whether to apply it or the current, no-estate-tax system.

Your heirs actually do better with the imaginary new estate tax in place. They could inherit your entire estate with no tax consequences; under the current 2010 rules, they will eventually owe income tax on about $2.7 million of gain. Need the math? Here it is: your imaginary estate has $4 million of capital gains that would be untaxed under either 2009 or 2011 rules, but do not escape taxation in 2010. You do get a $1.3 million exemption, which leaves $1.7 million of gain that your heirs receive along with their McDonald’s shares. So if they ever sell their inherited stock, they will owe a significant (but uncertain) income tax on the capital gain.

The truth is, of course, that you didn’t buy a million dollars worth of McDonald’s stock in 2003. In fact, there is a slim likelihood that you are worth more than a million dollars at all. That is not because of recent market reverses — that is because only about one percent of Americans have that kind of net worth, according to the most common estimates. And if you are not worth a million dollars on the day you die, neither the current nor any proposed federal estate tax regimen will make the slightest difference to your estate or heirs. State estate tax rules vary somewhat, but Arizona imposes no estate tax at all, and most of the states that do would also exempt assets of less than $1 million.

But what if you are worth more than a million? What are you supposed to do? The best answer for now might be to keep an eye on what Congress is doing, expect to pay to have your estate plan updated before the end of this year, and in the meantime try to avoid heavy traffic or unhealthy eating. Yes, we know — that wasn’t very helpful advice.

How about this advice: if you are worth more than a million dollars, you should probably have your estate plan reviewed now and expect to have it reviewed again next year, or after we know what Congress is going to do. Depending on your net worth, the types of assets you own and your intended beneficiaries, it might turn out that you don’t need the 2011 return visit — but we won’t know until Congess acts.

Some Medicare Recipients Will See a Rise in 2010 Premiums

OCTOBER 26, 2009  VOLUME 16, NUMBER 59

The Medicare program has announced its 2010 premium and coinsurance rates. As predicted, an anticipated increase in medical costs will mean a steep rise in Medicare-related premiums, but federal law protects most recipients from having to pay the new rates. One effect of changes in Medicare rate-setting over the last few years will be seen more clearly in 2010. Not long ago, every Medicare beneficiary could expect to pay the same portion of his or her medical costs. Those days are over, and a confusing system of co-payments, deductibles and premiums has now gotten more confusing.

Medicare has set the annual premium increase for Part B insurance at 15%, which translates into a 2010 premium of $110.50 per month. Nearly three-quarters of Medicare beneficiaries, however, will not have to pay that higher amount. Congress limited current Medicare beneficiaries’ premium increases to no more than their Social Security cost-of-living adjustment. Since Social Security announced two months ago that there will not be a COLA increase in 2010, that means that most Medicare beneficiaries will continue to pay $96.40 per month for Part B.

Who will pay the higher figure? Three groups of people:

  1. People who have been receiving Medicare but have not had Part B premiums deducted from their Social Security checks, for whatever reason, are not protected from the increased premiums.
  2. New Medicare beneficiaries are not protected, either. If you start receiving Medicare benefits in 2010 for the first time, you will pay the higher rate.
  3. Wealthy Medicare beneficiaries are not protected from increases. If a single person makes more than $85,000 per year, or a married couple more than $170,000, they will see the increase in their Part B premiums.

Wealthy Medicare beneficiaries actually get a double dose of increased premiums. Not only are they not protected from the 2010 increase, but they may also have to pay higher premiums based on their income levels. For the wealthiest Medicare beneficiaries — those whose individual income is over $214,000, or couples whose income is over $428,000 — the new Part B premium will be $353.60 per month.

Income for these calculations is determined by reference to the beneficiary’s 2008 income tax return. For those whose income has dropped since that year, it is possible to request a revision based on a later year’s tax returns.

Other premiums, co-payments and deductibles are also set to increase in 2010. Among the increases: an anticipated typical rise by about $2 in monthly Part D (drug plan) premiums nationwide.

Social Security Probably Won’t Have a Cost of Living Increase

AUGUST 24, 2009  VOLUME 16, NUMBER 52

According to the Trustees of the Social Security and Medicaid trust funds, it looks like the annual cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) for Social Security next year will be, well, zero. In other words retirees, those on Social Security Disability and even Supplemental Security Income recipients will see no increase in their Social Security checks in 2010.

A summary of the Trustee’s report is available online, and it makes for interesting reading. The Trustees have provided explanations, figures, projections and calculations — and also some calculations of the real-world effect of those projections on individual beneficiaries and the funds as a whole.

If the no-COLA projections are correct, it would be the first year without an increase since COLAs were introduced in 1975 (you can see the history of COLAs since 1975 in a chart maintained by the Social Security Administration). The law mandating COLAs does not allow for reductions in Social Security benefits, so at least no one will see any automatic decreases.

Well, that’s not quite correct. Some recipient’s checks will go down, since their Medicare Part B premiums may increase — though only about one-quarter of Social Security recipients will be affected by that possibility. For the rest, Part B premiums are not permitted to increase by more than the COLA amount. With no COLA projected, that means no increase in Part B premiums. For those whose premiums are indexed for income, however, that may mean large increases in Part B premiums.

In addition, Medicare Part D (the drug benefit) premiums are expected to increase slightly for most Social Security beneficiaries. Since those premiums are automatically deducted from Social Security, the effect for most recipients will be a decrease in their monthly checks.

The culprit, of course, is mostly the recession and the general economic slowdown. Despite the lack of a COLA, most Social Security beneficiaries are actually paying more for their basic needs this year — partly because they pay more for health care, where costs have not held steady or decreased as they have for many consumer goods.

The projections are murkier for next year, of course, but the Trustees predict that there will likely be no COLA in 2011, either. Their planning assumes only a small COLA in 2012.

The final numbers will not be released for another two months, but anyone receiving Social Security benefits should assume that they will not be seeing any increase next year. That will be a significant change from last October, when Social Security announced a 5.8% COLA — the largest since 1982 (see the Social Security chart, which provides year-by-year figures for the COLAs).

What effect does the lack of a COLA have on the Social Security and Medicare trust funds? The Trustees predict that Social Security’s trust fund is adequately funded for the next ten years, but that beginning in 2014 (two years earlier than estimated last year) payouts will begin to exceed the fund’s value. The hospital insurance portion of Medicare’s fund looks even bleaker; it will begin being spent down in 2011 and run out in 2017.

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