"Any time you make a decision purely for tax reasons, it has a way of coming back and biting you," said Mag Black-Scott, chief executive of Beverly Hills Wealth Management. "Could you be at a 43 percent tax on dividends instead of 15 percent? The straight answer is yes, of course you could. But what if that doesn't happen? What if they increase just slightly?"
Various proposals are on the table, but the taxes the wealthy say they worry most about are an increase in the capital gains rate to 20 percent from 15 percent, which would affect investments like stocks and second homes; an increase in the 15 percent tax on dividends; and a limitation on deductions, which would effectively increase the tax bill. For the truly wealthy, there is also the question of what will happen to estate and gift taxes.
In addition, the health care law sets a 3.8 percent Medicare tax on investment income for individuals with more than $200,000 in annual income (and couples with more than $250,000).
Taking taxes on capital gains as an example, Ms. Black-Scott, who started her career at Morgan Stanley in the late 1970s, said people needed to remember that the rates were 28 percent when Ronald Reagan was president. "If they go from 15 to 20 percent, is it really that bad?" She asked. "You need to say, 'Do I like the stock?' If you do, why would you get rid of it?"
Here is a look at some of the top areas where short-term decisions based solely on taxes could end up hindering long-term investment goals.
APPRECIATED STOCK Many people have large holdings in a single stock, often the result of working for a company for many years. And the stock may have appreciated significantly over that time. But if they are selling now solely for tax reasons, advisers say they shouldn't. The stock may continue to do well and more than compensate for increased capital gains.
But there is an upside to an increase in the capital gains rate: wealthier clients may finally be pushed to diversify their holdings. "If you have 75 percent of your wealth in one stock, then it's a really appropriate time to think about this," said Timothy R. Lee, managing director of Monument Wealth Management. If the increased tax rate "is a motivating factor for some people, O.K. Letting go of that control and the pride that goes with it is a really difficult decision."
Selling stock now may also make sense when it is in the form of stock options set to expire early next year. "Do you want to take the risk the price will drop in January?" Asked Melissa Labant, director of the tax team at the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants. "What if we have a fiscal cliff or a change in the markets? If you're comfortable, do it now."
Some investors may also fear that higher taxes will drive all stocks down. Patrick S. Boyle, investment strategist at Bessemer Trust, said there was no historical link between tax increases and stock market performance.
In the most recent three tax increases, he says, "the market has actually gone up in the six months before and after." He added: "It's not that tax rates aren't important. They are. It's just that there are so many other things going on that are more important than tax policy."
MUNICIPAL BONDS Bonds sold to finance state and local government projects are tax-free now and will be tax-free next year. That is no reason to load up on them.
Tax-free municipal bonds have always been attractive to people in higher-income tax brackets. Now, advisers fear that individuals just above the $200,000 threshold, people who say they do not feel wealthy but will probably be paying higher taxes on their income and investments, will try to offset that increase by moving more of their investments into municipal bonds.
Beth Gamel, a certified public accountant and executive vice president at Pillar Financial Advisers, imagined a case where people in higher tax brackets, thinking they were acting rationally, sold stocks this year to take advantage of the lower capital gains rates and then, to avoid higher taxes next year, put all or some of that money into municipal bonds. Maybe they outsmart the tax man, but they do so at risk to their retirement.