What Assets Are Important to My Family and Me?

One of the most important things that you should focus on when you meet with your accountant or CPA this tax season is to review which assets now and in the future will be the most important to both you and your family.  Recently, I attended the USC Tax Institute and a nationally known speaker pointed out how our traditional thinking for tax planning has now changed to focus almost exclusively on the income tax rather than death taxes.

The speaker used a very simple example to illustrate his point when he discussed the traditional IRA and its impact today compared to just two years ago.  Traditional IRA’s assets do not get a step up in basis on your death compared to other assets listed below.  This means the old planning of just withdrawing the annual minimum amount leaves your spouse or children with inherited ordinary income liabilities.  It makes sense to withdraw more than the minimum amount from the traditional IRA and to avoid using your other assets that can get a step up on your death.

Everyone has heard the old slogan about the inevitability of death and taxes.  For 99.7% of the population death taxes will not be an issue for their heirs since an individual can transfer up to $5,340,000 or a couple up to $10,680,000 under the new American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012 (“ATRA”). For the first time ATRA provides that the death tax exclusion amount is indexed for inflation so that it should increase significantly over time.

However, the income tax is still around and we all face having to pay our income taxes on an annual basis.  One of the hot subjects currently being discussed in the new ATRA era is: How do you plan for a couple who will not be subject to the death tax but want to have as much of their assets be distributed to their heirs with a stepped up in basis on the survivor’s death to avoid income taxes?

Step Up Example. Let’s say a couple, Bill and Jane, own stock worth $100,000 that was purchased for $10,000.  If they sold the stock during their lifetime there would be a capital gain of $90,000.  If Bill died first, Jane would be able to sell the $100,000 stock and pay no capital gain because both halves of their community property basis of $10,000 steps up to $100,000!!!   The same would be true for real property or any other asset that appreciates in value.  With rental real estate, Jane would be able to depreciate again the building on the rental property even though prior to Bill’s death the depreciation was completely used by both of them.

Rating of Assets for Step Up. If one were to list asset categories or types, starting with those that benefit the most from the “step-up” in basis and ending with those that benefit the least (or actually suffer a “stepdown” in basis), it might look as follows:

  1. Creator-owned intellectual property (copyrights, patents, and trademarks), intangible assets, and artwork;
  2. “Negative basis” commercial real property limited partnership interests;
  3. Investor/collector-owned artwork, gold, and other collectibles;
  4. Low basis stock or other capital asset;
  5. Roth IRA assets;
  6. High basis stock;
  7. Cash;
  8. Stock or other capital asset that is at a loss;
  9. Variable annuities; and
  10. Traditional IRA and qualified plan assets.

Conclusion.  With careful planning, you can over a period of time, use the items listed in (6) through (10) to live on and invest any remaining amount in assets that can appreciate and have a step up on your death.