Major Change in Estate Tax and Capital Gains Tax for 2010

Because of a Congressional failure to act before the end of 2009, there’s good news and bad news to report on the Estate Planning and Elder Law front.  The good news is there’s no Estate Tax if you die this year.  The bad news is you may owe significant capital gains taxes if a loved one dies this year and leaves you significant appreciated assets. If you have total assets of around $1 million or more (including face value of life insurance, retirement plans, home equity, etc.) you should make sure your estate plan is up to date.

Congress has had nine years to prevent this from happening, but has failed to act. Under the provisions of a Bush-era tax-cut bill enacted in 2001, the estate tax exemption has been gradually raised over the past eight years while the tax rate on estates has been reduced. For estates of those dying in 2009, only assets worth $3.5 million or more were subject to estate taxed, at a rate of 45 percent. But now, for the year 2010, the estate tax has disappeared entirely, only to be restored in 2011 at a rate of 55 percent on estates of $1 million or more, which is exactly where things stood before the 2001 change.

Everyone — lawyers, politicians, and political commentators — has expected for the past 9 years that this law would be “fixed” before the end of 2009, but it wasn’t.  According to some commentators, the Republicans concluded that it was in their interest to let the estate tax repeal occur; and the Democrats apparently don’t agree among themselves as to what they think the estate tax law should be, as Democrates have differing opinions over what the tax rate and the exempt amount should be. Senate Democrats tried to persuade Republicans to extend the 2009 estate tax law for a couple of months until a more permanent solution could be devised, but even that effort failed.  Accordingly, there is currently no tax on the estates of those dying during 2010. Congress could reinstate the tax retroactively in 2010, perhaps as part of broader tax reform, but this is not likely according to many commentators.

As the law stands, a few thousand very wealthy families have great financial incentive to hope that their loved ones die this year.  On the other hand, tens of thousands of taxpayers of more modest wealth may have great incentive to keep their loved ones alive into 2011, because if their loved one dies in 2010 and they inherit an appreciated asset, they may have pay capital gains on that inherited asset, and someone acting as an executor will face additional and confusing administrative burdens.

Loss of Step-Up in Basis May Be Quite Expensive for Many Taxpayers

For most people, the main concern with the law as it now stands is not that the estate tax is repealed for 2010; a bigger problem for many is that it’s replaced with a 15 percent capital gains tax on inherited assets that are later sold.  Previously, someone inheriting an appreciated asset (for example, a house that had greatly appreciated in value over the lifetime of your parents) upon a loved one’s death got a “step-up in basis” in the property. A step-up meant that heirs could sell the inherited, appreciated asset right away without owing any capital gains taxes, because the tax “basis” in the property was “stepped-up” to the value of the property at death.

If you inherit an asset now (in 2010), only the first $1.3 million in assets gets a step-up in basis. Anything over the $1.3 million in assets (plus $3 million for assets transferred to a surviving spouse) will not get a step-up in basis.  Instead, when you sell the property you’ll have to pay capital gains taxes based on the original cost basis (typically the price paid for the asset). This raises an additional concern — having to determine what the cost basis of the asset was.  This in itself could be quite expensive, not to mention time-consuming in trying to ascertain the original price paid for assets, including any renovations or improvements made to real estate over the years.

The capital gains tax rules can be quite complicated, but let’s look at a relatively simple example:  a client called me a few days ago with a home worth approximately $1 million and 40 acres of commercial land that her father gifted to her prior to his death, now worth approximately $2 million. The home was originally purchased by my client for $8,000 in 1961 and she put a $40,000 addition on the home in 1982, so her tax basis in the home is $48,000. Her father originally purchased the 40 acres of land around 1943, for $1,000; at the time of his death in 1992, the 40 acres was worth about $600,000.  Had he left the land to his daughter upon his death, she would have taken a stepped-up basis under the old law, but because he gifted it to her prior to his death, she took over his cost basis of $1,000.  So now her two parcels have a total cost basis of $49,000.  If my client had died last year, then her heirs would have received a step-up in basis, meaning if they sold the properties for their current value of $3 million, they would pay no capital gains tax.  Under today’s law, if my client dies this year, in 2010, her heirs will inherit her cost basis of $49,000, meaning that if her heirs then sell these properties for their current value of $3 million, they will pay a 15% capital gains tax on $1,651,000 ($2,951,000 – $1,300,000), or $247,650 in tax.

The chief tax counsel for the House Ways and Means Committee estimates that continuing the estate tax at its 2009 rates would have affected about 6,000 people, but the new capital gains provisions that we now have will affect more than 70,000. And, in general, these 70,000 will be far less wealthy than the heirs who would have been affected by a continuation of the estate tax.

Couples With Credit Shelter Trusts at Risk

The new world of no estate tax places at particular risk certain couples who have built in “Credit Shelter” trust provisions (also called “Bypass Trust” or “Family Trust” provisions), that are designed to allow both spouses to take advantage of their estate tax exemptions. These are common arrangements used in estate planning for married couples. With the estate tax gone, one possible problem is that the wording of some of these trusts could cause all assets to completely bypass the surviving spouse when the first spouse dies, meaning a surviving spouse might get nothing without the expensive process of claiming her “elective share.” For a more detailed explanation of this potential problem, click here.

Why Did This Happen?

The House passed a bill in early December permanently extending the 2009 estate tax rules, which would have brough in an estimated $25 billion for 2009 by imposing the 45 percent rate on estates over $3.5 million (or $7 million for a couple). The Senate’s Democratic leadership wanted to pass a similar bill and put it on President Obama’s desk before the estate tax expired at the end of 2009, but they were blocked by united Senate Republicans who prefer a lower tax rate of 35 percent and a higher exclusion amount of $5 million ($10 million for couples).

“Republicans who claim to have accomplished something by blocking an extension need to explain why raising taxes on the middle class while lowering them for the very rich is something to be proud of,” the Los Angeles Times editorialized.

For more on the implications of the disappearance of the estate tax, see CBS MoneyWatch’s “Estate Tax: What You Need to Know for 2010,”SmartMoney’s “The Federal Estate Tax Is Dead: Now What?,”and Kiplinger’s “FAQs on the Death of the Estate Tax.”

Everyone — Especially Married Couples — Should Have Their Estate Planning Reviewed ASAP

Because of these somewhat unexpected tax changes, a review of your existing estate planning documents is essential.  If you are a member of the Farr Law Firm’s Estate Plan Protection Program or Lifetime Protection Program, you are entitled to a free review (and, if necessary, a free modification) of your existing estate planning documents every year, and you should call us to take advantage of this annual review as soon as possible.  Most of our trusts will not need to be modified because of special language we inserted in the document, but changes to some trusts may be required.  If your estate planning was done by a different attorney, you should consider going back to that attorney for a review; alternatively, please feel free to contact our office and we will be happy to do a free review of your estate planning documents, determine if any changes are required, and quote you a fee for us to prepare the necessary revised documents.

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About Evan H Farr, CELA, CAP

Evan H. Farr is a 4-time Best-Selling author in the field of Elder Law and Estate Planning. In addition to being one of approximately 500 Certified Elder Law Attorneys in the Country, Evan is one of approximately 100 members of the Council of Advanced Practitioners of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys and is a Charter Member of the Academy of Special Needs Planners.