When President Donald Trump oversaw the passing of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) in 2017, substantive tax reforms were made with the intention of promoting economic growth that affected corporations, small businesses, and individuals. With the upcoming election in November, though, former Vice President and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has proposed a tax plan that challenges several aspects of the current system in an effort to increase Federal tax revenues and address income/wealth inequality.
One of the key features of Joe Biden’s proposed plan is for ordinary income brackets to be adjusted for individuals with annual incomes over $400,000 (although whether this threshold applies to individuals or joint filers remains unclear), increasing the top tax bracket to the pre-TCJA rate of 39.6%. The income brackets for those with annual income levels under $400,000 will remain unaffected.
Biden’s plan also includes the elimination of the Qualified Business Income (QBI) tax deduction for pass-through business owners (e.g., partnerships, LLCs, S corporations, and sole proprietors) whose individual annual income is $400,000 or more, in effect, potentially increasing the tax bracket for high earners by 10% (from 29.6% for those eligible for the QBI deduction to the proposed highest rate of 39.6%). The plan would also cap the value of the rate at which itemized deductions can be taken to 28%, which affects those in the tax brackets above 28%, as their rate to determine itemized deductions would be reduced from their income tax bracket.
Another feature of Biden’s tax plan is a flat retirement contribution credit, as determined by a specific percentage (currently anticipated to be 26%) of the contribution amount to replace deductions of those retirement account contributions. This would, in effect, lower the tax burden for taxpayers in tax brackets under the proposed set rate (incentivizing taxpayers in lower tax brackets to contribute to tax-deferred retirement accounts), while increasing it for taxpayers in brackets over the proposed rate. Financial advisors who want to prepare for an expected Biden victory might consider accelerating income and deductions into 2020 for high-income earners because, for this group, income tax rates may be higher and deductions not as favorable if the passage of Biden’s tax plan does come to fruition. Accordingly, year-end Roth conversions may be a good strategy for some high-income earners to forgo the 26% credit in the present for the benefit of tax-free distributions in the future.
Enhancements to personal income tax credits made by the proposal include a higher Child Tax Credit (increased from $2,000 for children under 17 to $3,600 for children under 6 and $3,000 for all other children under 17), Child and Dependent Care Credit (from $3,000 to $8,000 for one child, and from $6,000 to $16,000 for two or more). The First-time Homebuyer Credit would be reintroduced as a refundable and advanceable credit of up to $15,000, and a brand-new proposed Caregiver Credit would provide $5,000 for informal long-term caregivers.
Long-term capital gains and qualified dividend tax rates would increase to ordinary income tax rates for income over $1 million under the proposed Biden plan (with the 3.8% surtax on net investment income to remain in place), and 1031 Exchanges would be eliminated for taxpayers with annual income over $400,000. Some strategies to mitigate the impact of these proposed changes would be to target lower annual capital gains realized, use municipal bonds for their (largely) tax-free character, reduce investments in the portfolio that produce dividends, take advantage of the tax deferral of investment-only variable annuities (for accredited investors, Private Placement annuities can also be a useful option), and use installment sales to regulate annual income levels, keeping them under $1 million as much as possible.
Additionally, Biden’s tax plan proposes to eliminate the step-up in basis rules that currently apply to inherited assets (that are not considered Income In Respect of a Decedent), which would impact both higher- and lower-earners potentially facing a significant and problematic tax bill on inherited assets. Thus, life insurance could see renewed potential as a tool to provide liquidity and/or mitigate the burden of a high tax liability resulting from the inheritance. Alternately, a more structured sale or gifting strategy throughout the owner’s lifetime can be a good way to mitigate taxes for the beneficiary should Biden’s plan pass.
A final key feature of the proposed tax plan would be a 50% reduction of the exclusion amount for estate and gift taxes, from $11.58 million to the pre-TCJA amount of $5.79 million. To be cautious, advisors may want to encourage their clients to use as much of their exemption in 2020 in case Biden is elected to office and his tax plan is approved. Other strategies that can be considered to deal with a smaller exemption in the long-term can potentially include the use of Grantor Retained Annuity Trusts (GRATs), Charitable Lead Annuity Trusts (CLATs), and sales to Intentionally Defective Grantor Trusts (IDGTs).
Ultimately, the key point is that even though there is much that can be planned for at this stage prior to the election – regardless of who wins the race – the most important thing for advisors to do in the present moment is to educate themselves (and their clients) about the impact that each candidate’s position will have on them, and to help them plan accordingly as election results come in!