5 ways to protect your estate from capital gains taxes
Published: Dec 25, 2015 6:04 a.m. ET
Traditional estate planning is being turned on its head
By JOHN O. MCMANUS
The time-honored approach to estate planning is being turned on its head by significant tax law changes that have taken effect in recent years.
Long-term capital gains tax rates now range from 25% to 33% (when you add together the top federal, state and local rates and Obamacare’s Medicare surtax). So now that the federal estate tax exemption is $5.43 million ($10.86 million for a couple’s combined exemptions), many Americans may no longer be exposed to federal estate taxes, making taxes on income and capital gains more prominent.
In fact, some legal practitioners who spent the first half of their careers zealously transferring assets out of their clients’ estates to avoid estate taxes now expect to spend the second half pushing assets back into their clients’ estates because the estate planning paradigm has changed.
What are the best ways to strategize around capital gains taxes to keep them as low as possible?
Rundown of the tax rules for gifts
To answer that, it helps to first understand the rules about gifts and taxes.
If you give assets to family members or put them into a trust to minimize estate taxes and the assets have appreciated significantly, when they’re sold, the gain (the amount that is taxed) is the difference between your original purchase price and the sale price at the current market value.
That purchase price is known as your “cost basis” (adjusted for any stock splits and dividends). With residential real estate, basis can increase depending on capital improvements to the property; for commercial real estate, basis can be adjusted due to depreciation. Examples of assets with a low basis: Exxon stock your grandfather gave you years ago when he was alive or the Brooklyn brownstone you bought in the 1970s that has appreciated in value by several million dollars.
Without strategic planning, $33,000 in capital gains taxes may be due when an asset is sold with a $100,000 gain, leaving the net proceeds at just $67,000.
When the owner of an asset passes away, the asset’s basis can shift upward, which shrinks the amount of gain that will eventually be taxed upon its sale. The basis then gets reset to the fair market value at the date of death. This is called a “step-up” in basis, and it is essential to many income and gains tax planning strategies. When assets are included in an estate, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) gives you a capital-gains tax break because of the step-up in basis upon death.
5 capital-gains cutting strategies
Here are five ways you might be able to reduce your capital gains taxes through timely estate planning strategies:
First, consider undoing a trust. Assets that were gifted into trust are not part of an estate, but putting them back into the estate could avoid capital gains taxes.
For example, once a home has been given by a parent to a child and put into trust, the parent can’t live in the home without a lease and scheduled rent payments. But if you decide to live in the home without paying rent, terminate the lease, and create an agreement saying your intention is to undermine the previous trust transfer, the home gets clawed back into the estate.
Second, consider ”upstream gifting.” This is a strategy that involves transferring an asset up the generational chain to an older family member (like your parent) or a trust for the benefit of the older family member. This allows the asset to achieve a step-up in basis at the time of the parent’s death (inherited assets receive a step-up upon death but gifts have no step-up). Upon the parent’s passing, he or she would leave the asset back to the child who made the gift or to his or her descendants. The asset could then be sold, with the new high basis at current market value, free of capital gains tax, on the one condition that the parent survived the transfer from the child by at least one year.
Third, if you and your spouse have highly-appreciated assets, you could consider using a special type of trust. It’s a Joint-Exempt Step-Up Trust (JEST) or an Estate Trust or, if you live in Alaska or Tennessee, a Community Property Trust. Each lets the surviving spouse sell an appreciated asset without the imposition of any capital gains tax after the first spouse’s death. In effect, they provide the benefit of a step-up in basis to current market value upon the passing of the first spouse, so the surviving spouse can sell the appreciated asset without owing any capital gains tax.
These are valuable strategies because it is quite common for assets to be jointly owned between spouses, and the typical step-up in basis upon the death of the first spouse would apply to only 50% of the asset, rather than its full market value at the time.
Just make certain there is a separate side agreement saying this property is treated as community property.
Fourth, take advantage of the home sale tax exclusion. It lets homeowners exclude up to $250,000 of capital gain ($500,000 for a married couple) when they sell if they’ve owned and lived in the home for at least two out of the past five years before the sale.
Fifth, if you have a real-estate investment or artwork you bought as an investment, use a 1031 Exchange. This is a strategy that lets you delay capital gains taxation by rolling over the sale proceeds from the original asset into a new, similar property or piece of art — known as a “like-kind” investment. The new investment takes the original basis, which is carried over based on the original basis of the asset.
When it comes to your estate plan, it may be time to say “out with old and in with the new.”
John O. McManus is founding principal of McManus & Associates, a trusts and estates law firm based in New Providence, N.J.
This article is reprinted by permission from NextAvenue.org, © 2015 Twin Cities Public Television, Inc. All rights reserved.