Estate Planning: Income Tax Strategies
Law firms have had to take a spike in income tax rates, a decline in the estate tax rate, and an increasing annual estate tax exemption threshold into account in devising estate planning strategies. There has been a decreasing gap between the income tax rates and estate tax rates: estate tax has moved to a maximum rate of 40% and a $5.45 million exclusion in 2016, from a 55% percent tax rate and a $675,000 exclusion in 2001; the maximum tax rate on ordinary income is 39.6%, up from a low of 35 percent in 2003; the maximum long-term capital gains tax rate increased to 20% from 15% in that same time frame. Furthermore, in 2013 an additional 3.8% surtax was added for net investment of individuals, estates, and trusts over statutory threshold amounts in certain cases. While these numbers might make you think that estate planning is only necessary for the super wealthy, financial planners advise that it is not. Taxes are just one consideration of estate planning: it is critical to plan for an orderly transfer of assets or for other circumstances such as incapacitation.
The capital gains tax rate – the long-term rate of 20% plus the 3.8% surtax – is significant because it affects the basis of assets. When a decedent dies, her beneficiaries get the benefit of a step-up in basis, which is appreciated assets held in the decedent’s estate are readjusted to fair market value at the time of inheritance. Through this mechanism, the beneficiary receives an income tax advantage because she is not liable for the capital gains tax on any appreciation that occurs up to the point she inherits the asset.