Posts Tagged ‘Congress’

Estate Tax Reform 2010 — Is It Over Yet?

DECEMBER 20, 2010 VOLUME 17 NUMBER 39
The ink is not yet dry on Congress’s tax and unemployment insurance compromise. Signed just last week by President Obama, the Tax Relief, Unemployment Insurance Reauthorization and Job Creation Act of 2010 has now become law. It continues previous income tax breaks for everyone, regardless of wealth. It extends unemployment insurance coverage for an additional 13 months. It also rewrites the estate tax — it does not simply carry forward the estate tax rules adopted a decade ago.

Under the new law no estate tax will be due on estates of less than $5 million. Since there is no Arizona state estate tax, that means that only the wealthiest Arizonans (or those with significant assets in other states which do impose an estate tax) need to be concerned about estate tax rules at all. It should mean that estate planning just got easier, more predictable and lower-risk for nearly all of our clients.

It should mean that, but it may not. There are a number of details to watch out for, including:

  • If you are married and your estate plan was initially prepared a decade or more ago, you might well have a two-trust arrangement. Sometimes described by the shorthand “A/B trust” designation, such an arrangement can actually now increase the total tax paid by your heirs. How could that happen? If a separate trust is created and funded at the first spouse’s death, assets assigned to that trust will not get a stepped-up basis on the death of the second spouse. Under the new law you can get an equivalent estate tax result and still preserve the 100% step-up in income tax basis at the second spouse’s death.
  • If a loved one died during 2010, the heirs get to choose which tax regimen to adopt — either the no-tax choice originally in place for 2010 or the $5 million exemption now adopted. Since the $5 million option includes full stepped-up basis (the original 2010 structure limited the step-up to $1.3 million for unmarried decedents), it may actually be beneficial to opt for the new taxable-estate option. Hard to figure out? Yes. The good news: you have until September, 2011, to decide which option is better.
  • The $5 million exemption is now “portable.” That means that if your spouse dies without having planned to use the exemption, it is still available to you. In other words, a couple effectively gets $10 million in estate tax exemption without having to prepare any planning documents. One small caveat: if the surviving spouse remarries and their new spouse predeceases, they lose the original unused exemption amount (but still get to use any unused exemption from the second spouse). It looks like Congress has (perhaps unwittingly) created a new marriage-discouraging provision for seniors — or at least for wealthy seniors.
  • For a decade we have been saying that the most important estate tax principle would be certainty. If you are pretty sure you know what the estate tax will look like for the next five years or so, you can plan accordingly. Unfortunately, Congress and the Administration have given us only two years of certainty — and much of the certainty we have is that the issue will be politically charged and intensely debated for much of that two-year period. In fact, Vice President Biden told a national television audience Sunday morning (on NBC’s Meet the Press) that “scaling back … the estate tax for the very wealthy” would be a top priority for the Administration over the next two years.
  • The new law also increases the level at which both gift taxes and “generation-skipping” taxes are an issue. Both of those also set at the $5 million level for the next two years. If either or both returns to lower levels after 2012, that could mean an important planning issue for very wealthy individuals in the meantime. Should gifts be made now, just in case? Should gifts be made to grandchildren and later generations, just in case? Expect to see more about those issues in coming months.
  • Paradoxically, the new rules could mean that more people (at least more wealthy decedents) should be filing estate tax returns — even though no estate taxes are due. Penalties for failure to file are higher, the importance to surviving spouses has increased and the stakes involved have generally gone up.

Does all of that sound like the issues are resolved? No — but the plain fact remains that a tiny minority of Americans are wealthy enough to be worried about any of these issues. How do you know if you need to worry? Take this quick four-question quiz:

  1. Is your entire estate (including life insurance, IRAs and retirement accounts) worth less than about $2 million? Whatever happens in the next two years, it is pretty unlikely that the estate tax level is going to return to a number below about $3.5 million (the favorite number kicked around by Democrats during debates over the past year).
  2. Are you married? If so, you can double the estate value in the previous question.
  3. Do you live in Arizona (or another state with no estate tax)? There are only about a dozen states where state estate tax is important — Arizona is not one of them.
  4. Are you middle-aged or older? If so, are you comfortable assuming that your net worth will not dramatically increase in the next few years?

Depending on your answers, your estate planning choices are likely to be simplified. You should check to see whether you now have estate planning provisions that are no longer needed. You should also check whether your non-tax planning issues have been addressed. Do your documents name the right person to act as trustee, health care agent, personal representative and financial agent? Do they leave your assets to the people (and organizations) and in the proportions that you want? Do they refer to events, locations or items that are no longer relevant?

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.

Pension Protection Act of 2006 Includes Little-Known Benefits

NOVEMBER 13, 2006  VOLUME 14, NUMBER 20

Even as the recent national election was ramping up late last summer, Congress passed and the President signed the Pension Protection Act of 2006. Billed as a great boon to most workers, the Act may not have nearly the advertised effect—primarily because of a continuing shift away from traditional “defined benefit” pension plans and toward “defined contribution” retirement arrangements. Still, there are a number of items every worker should know about—particularly those invested in IRAs and 401(k) plans.

The new law may actually accelerate the trend away from defined benefit retirement plans. Because it requires companies to use stricter accounting standards in calculating the amount of money required to fully fund such plans, many analysts predict that more employers will review their existing plans and instead move toward pension plans that create a separate account for each worker, with no guarantee of retirement income levels.

For those with existing 401(k) and IRA retirement accounts, however, the new law provides a small handful of new options. Among the benefits offered to those workers and their beneficiaries:

  • Even before the new law you could withdraw money from an IRA or Roth IRA, then make a charitable gift and deduct the gift for income tax purposes. You might not, however, be able to deduct the entire gift—meaning you would pay taxes on income that you are giving away. The new law lets you give instructions for a distribution directly from your IRA or Roth IRA to a charity with no tax effect at all, ensuring that you get the entire benefit of the charitable gift. Two limits: the maximum amount you can direct to charity is $100,000, and you only have tax years 2006 and 2007 to make the gift.
  • If you are the beneficiary of an IRA, 401(k) or other qualified plan, you can direct that the plan’s contents be rolled over into an “inherited” IRA. That means you will not be stuck with the plan’s rules about distributions (some plans do not allow withdrawals over your life expectancy, for instance, even though the tax laws permit such “stretch” distributions).
  • The Treasury Department has been ordered to issue new, liberalized rules on hardship withdrawals from 401(k) accounts. The new rules should make it easier to withdraw money for the benefit of not only the account owner, but also persons listed as beneficiaries under the plan.
  • It will be easier to roll 401(k) money over into a Roth IRA—though the tax will still have to be paid in the year of the conversion. Under old rules, the rollover required two steps (401(k) to IRA, then to Roth IRA).

Court Strikes Down Ashcroft Directive on Assisted Suicide

MAY 31, 2004 VOLUME 11, NUMBER 48

In 1994 and again in 1997, Oregon voters approved the first law permitting physician-assisted suicide in the U.S. In each of the six years since the law was implemented, about 30 terminally ill Oregon residents have used the “Death With Dignity” Act to end their lives with the help of physicians. It is not easy to comply with the Act’s terms; it is available only to long-time Oregon residents who are terminally ill, and it requires psychological assessment of the patient and consistent requests over time. It also requires a sympathetic and cooperative physician to prescribe medication and a pharmacist to dispense the lethal dosage of drugs.

U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft has made clear his disapproval of the Oregon law. In November, 2001, Mr. Ashcroft issued a Directive to officers of the federal Drug Enforcement Administration. The Directive insists that physician-assisted suicide serves no legitimate medical purpose, and instructs the DEA to prosecute any physician who prescribes a lethal dose of narcotics or other “controlled substances.” It also directs prosecution of any pharmacist filling such a prescription, and effectively threatens both physicians and pharmacists with loss of professional licenses if they utilize the Oregon law.

A physician, a pharmacist, several terminally ill patients, and the State of Oregon brought suit in Oregon Federal Court to have Mr. Ashcroft’s Directive rendered invalid. They argued that Mr. Ashcroft had no business interfering in the doctor/patient relationship, and no authority to impose his views of proper medical care on state governments.

Judge Robert E. Jones of the Federal District Court in Oregon agreed, and permanently enjoined the Attorney General from enforcing his own Directive. Mr. Ashcroft appealed that ruling.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed Judge Jones’ ruling. The appellate court noted that the Controlled Substances Act, on which Mr. Ashcroft had relied for his Directive, was intended to combat drug abuse, not to regulate medical care. That job should be left to the states, according to the ruling, and until Congress acts the Attorney General is powerless to enforce his Directive. Besides, as the appellate court pointed out, Mr. Ashcroft is a lawyer, not a physician, and he and his office are poorly qualified to make medical decisions. Any role the administration is to have in medical decisions should be voiced by the Department of Health and Human Services, not the Attorney General.

One other problem with the Directive, said the two judges in the majority, is that it does exactly what Mr. Ashcroft intended it to do. Because of the fear of prosecution or loss of license, the Directive would have a chilling effect on physicians, pharmacists and other health care providers, as they might not dare risk their livelihood and freedom to provide patient care in a manner approved by Oregon voters. State of Oregon v. Ashcroft, May 26, 2004.

One of the three appellate judges hearing the case dissented, and would have approved the Directive. It is likely that the Supreme Court will be asked to resolve the dispute over Mr. Aschroft’s Directive.

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