Voters have to make a decision on November 6. But in the days that follow, advisors and their wealthy clients may face some tough choices as well.
The reason: the stark differences in tax policy, not only between Democrats and Republicans but between Congress and the White House. One thing is certain: Taxes will go up, whether or not Republican challenger Mitt Romney unseats President Barack Obama. A lot depends on whether Republicans regain control of the Senate as well.
Many of the changes are already written into the law, such as the end of the Bush tax rates, scheduled to expire on December 31, 2012. Then there are estate taxes to consider. In 2013, with the Bush tax rates of 2001 and 2003 expiring, the estate tax exemption will revert to $1 million from $5.12 million. Rates on amounts over the exemption will go up from 35% to 55%.
Some financial experts believe that if President Barack Obama is re-elected, he would likely let those taxes stay at the pre-Bush levels, though Obama has also proposed an exclusion of $3.5 million and a rate of 45%. Senate Democrats have proposed extending all the Bush tax rates for one year on income up to $200,000 for individuals ($250,000 for married couples). Under this scenario, high-income taxpayers would see their top two income tax rates increase to 36% and 39.6%, from 33% and 35%.
Senate Republicans, meanwhile, have proposed a full one-year extension of the Bush tax rates, including the lower rates on investment income. They would not, however, continue the 2009 expansion of the lower and middle-income tax breaks included in the Democratic plan. Republicans would extend the current estate tax, which allows for a $5 million exemption level (indexed to $5.12 million for 2012) and imposes a top rate of 35%.
Obama says he wants to preserve the Bush income tax rates for those beneath the $200,000 and $250,000 thresholds. The special tax rates on long-term capital gains and qualified dividends will expire on December 31, 2012. Starting in 2013, the tax rate on long-term gains will be 20% (or 10% if a taxpayer is in the 15% tax bracket). Also starting in 2013, the distinction between ordinary and qualified dividends will disappear, and all dividends will be subject to ordinary tax rates. As part of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, Medicare rates will go up to 3.8% on investment income for singles earning more than $200,000 and couples earning more than $250,000.
The taxes on dividends will also go up for people in those high brackets, to the rate of a person's regular income, up to 39.6%. The Medicare tax surcharge would add 3.8%, making the total tax on dividends 43.4%, which is the figure cited in Obama's budget, according to Thomas J. Handler, partner at Handler Thayer PPC, a Chicago law firm. Capital gains would revert to 20% from 15%. The 3.8% Medicare surcharge would make the capital gains rate 23.8%. This rate also applies to sales of businesses and real estate; if a client plans to sell land or a business, he should look at this carefully, starting now.
Handler says this return to the 2000 tax rates would create a dire outlook-the result would be to take 4.7% off of GDP, he says, which means, with an already slow growth rate this year, GDP would turn negative.
So what are wise advisors suggesting that their clients do? "Who you think will win has a big impact on what you should do," Handler says. Should you delay deductions and accelerate income? That's the main question. "We're suggesting that all things being equal, take cap gains. We rarely want to accelerate taxes, but in this case you have to if you plan to sell a business or land or other real estate. You have to get going now." Clients would also have to sell high-dividend stocks, he says.
Ross Levin, president and founding partner at Accredited Investors, a financial advisory firm in Edina, Minn., takes a less aggressive stance. "We are not currently accelerating capital gains because we think that is still up in the air," Levin says. "We are accepting the Medicare surcharge as a given."