Your Money, Your Future
Your Money, Your Future

What's ahead for your taxes if Biden wins the election

Key Points
  • Former vice president Joe Biden has called for rolling back a lot of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, which trimmed income tax rates. He has proposed raising income taxes and Social Security taxes on wages over $400,000.
  • Long-term capital gains and qualified dividends would be subject to ordinary income taxes — 39.6% — for those with income over $1 million, and the step-up in basis at death would be eliminated.
  • For this to happen, not only would Biden have to win, but Democrats would have to capture the Senate and maintain their House majority. Watch and wait, but don’t make any drastic planning moves yet.
Democratic presidential nominee and former US Vice President Joe Biden introduces his vice presidential running mate, US Senator Kamala Harris, during their first press conference together in Wilmington, Delaware, on August 12, 2020.
Olivier Douliery | AFP | Getty Images

Though former vice president Joe Biden has proposed raising taxes on the wealthiest households, accountants are telling their clients to stand pat for now.

As Biden prepares to accept his party's nomination for president this week at the Democratic National Convention, high-income earners are beginning to wonder if it's time to revisit their tax plans.

"Many people think the Democrats will take the White House and the Senate, and as a result, changes will occur sooner rather than later," said Jim Bertles, managing director of Tiedemann Advisors in Palm Beach, Florida.

Indeed, taxpayers with taxable income over $400,000 could see their individual income taxes tick up under a Biden presidency. The former vice president has also called for raising taxes on wealth transfer.

To make those changes, Democrats likely would need to maintain their majority in the House as well.

"As a result, people are coming to us, lawyers and accountants and saying, 'Let's engage in some transfer tax planning and take advantage of today's rates while they exist,'" said Bertles.

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In comparison, President Donald Trump signed the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act into law in late 2017, which lowered individual income tax rates across the board, roughly doubled the standard deduction and eliminated personal exemptions. He also doubled the estate and gift tax exemption to more than $11 million from 2018 through 2025.

The changes under a Biden administration may seem earth-shattering to the wealthiest households, yet accountants are suggesting they watch and wait.

"Making decisions now and moving assets based on an election that may go a certain way, based on tax policy that may be created is a little too risky," said Jeffrey Levine, CPA and director of advanced planning at Buckingham Wealth Partners in Long Island, New York.

"There isn't a tremendous need to act today, but I would think about it," he said.

The Biden campaign did not immediately return emails seeking comment.

Income taxes

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Accountants are largely focusing on two slices of Biden's proposals: income taxes and estate planning.

On the income tax side, Biden calls for raising the top individual income tax rate to 39.6% from 37%, and applying it to taxpayers with taxable income over $400,000, according to an analysis from the Tax Policy Center.

He's also talking about an increase to payroll taxes. Biden would apply the 12.4% portion of the Social Security tax — which is normally shared by both the employee and employer — to earnings over $400,000, the Tax Policy Center found.

Currently, the Social Security tax is subject to a wage cap of $137,700 and is adjusted annually.

Finally, Biden would also boost rates on long-term capital gains and qualified dividends to 39.6% — the same top rate as ordinary income — for those with income over $1 million, according to theTax Foundation.

Currently, the long-term capital gains tax rate is 20% for single households with more than $441,451 in taxable income ($496,601 for married-filing-jointly) in 2020.

Making decisions now and moving assets based on an election that may go a certain way, based on tax policy that may be created is a little too risky.
Jeffrey Levine
CPA and director of advanced planning at Buckingham Wealth Partners

The tax rate applies when you sell investments you've held for at least a year.

Selling appreciated investments, as well as converting traditional individual retirement accounts to a Roth and paying the income tax at a lower rate now may seem like a good idea if you think taxes are going to rise later.

Avoid knee-jerk reactions. The decision depends on how the election turns out and what legislation may follow, as well as your own financial situation.

"Make sure that it impacts you personally," said Tim Steffen, CPA and senior consultant in the advisor education group at Pimco.

"If you're going to retire next year and your income falls, it could be that those higher taxes have no impact on you whatsoever — or if the higher tax rates go up, it affects only those who are in the brackets to start with."

Estate tax boost

Oliver Rossi

Last month, the Democratic presidential contender collaborated with Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and the two formed six task forces to release a 110-page policy document. The document gives some insight on what we might expect from a Biden administration.

"Estate taxes should also be raised back to the historical norm," the task force wrote in the policy plan.         

Indeed, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act roughly doubled the amount that you can transfer to other people — either at death or as a gift during life — without facing the 40% estate and gift tax.

The gift-and-estate tax exemption is $11.58 million per individual in 2020.

Biden has set his sights on the "step-up in basis," a provision in the tax code that allows an individual to hold onto an asset for years, watch it appreciate and then bequeath it to an heir at death.

The owner's basis — the original investment in the asset — steps up to market value at death, which means the heir is subject to little to no capital gains taxes if he sells it.

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Biden proposes taxing the unrealized capital gains in the asset at death, which essentially does away with the step-up.

Wealthy households are likely to use gifting strategies to head off this change, said Bertles of Tiedemann Advisors. "This can be as simple as giving assets to a trust or outright to kids or grandkids while using the exemption," he said.

While you don't want to give away your assets prematurely, it doesn't hurt to start talking to your financial advisor about what you might do next.

This might include getting a valuation for hard-to-value assets you may want to pass on to the next generation, said Levine.

"If I were contemplating a transfer later this year, I'd start getting those valuations done, so you're not pressed for time as the end of the year closes," he said. "But other than that, don't give away the assets now."