The GOP’s fiction about small family farms sold to pay off a “death tax” are more convincing than actual facts about the stepped-up basis tax loophole for the rich.
Proof? “House Democrats revealed a package of tax hikes on corporations and the rich WITHOUT President Joseph Biden’s proposed levy on inherited property at death.“
Seriously?! You know what small farmers want MORE than being used as a beard for the mega-wealthy’s “Buy-Borrow-Die” tax-free lifestyle? Debt relief! Affordable health care! Affordable childcare! Reasonable drug prices!( also in danger from DEMS!) What most non-1% Americans want.
How did we get here? By letting our eyes glaze over on “tax” issues, leaving it up to our heavily-lobbied legislators. But we’re starting to catch on to the con game in which mega-corporations and ultra-rich individuals pay little or nothing in federal income tax, using a fiction about farms that hasn’t been true for decades.
“ProPublica said the data showed Amazon founder Jeff Bezos realizes billions each year in asset appreciation (such as rising stock prices) and yet can keep his taxable income so low that one year he qualified for the child tax credit (which he took).”
Polling this summer has generally found the public supportive of higher taxes on “corporations and the wealthy.” The billionaires’ tax avoidance schemes are actually easy to understand. We just need to start holding our legislators to account and close up this “step-up” loophole.
Tell your legislators to cut off the step-up loophole scam! CALL/EMAIL
Minimal script: I’m calling from [zip code] and I want Rep. [___] to commit to eliminating the step-up basis loophole on capital gains, which allows the wealthy to pass down billions of dollars in assets to their heirs without ever having to pay a single penny on their growing value. This has no place in a fair tax code. Biden has already answered every objection by exempting all family-owned farms and businesses from the estate tax. It’s time to put a halt to mega-rich hiding behind small farmers to shield their tax-free lifestyle and turn those untaxed gains into the infrastructure the country desperately needs right now.
If Rep. [___] is actually interested in helping small farmers, we’d expect to see them strongly supporting legislation that would help them now:
- #1 – Debt Relief: I urge Rep. [___] cosponsor and support H.R.3782 – Relief for America’s Small Farmers Act, which provides forgiveness of loans from the Dept. of Agriculture.
- #2 – Health Issues: I urge Rep. [___] commit to solving small farmers’ need for affordable healthcare, by supporting all Biden’s plans to make health care more affordable and accessible, lower medicare to 60, and stop the obstruction of drug price reform that disproportionately hurts rural populations.
- #3 – Child care: I urge Rep. [___] commit to solving small farmers’ need for affordable childcare by supporting Biden’s plans to for childcare infrastruture.
- H.R. 3787 cosponsors: Brownley and Carbajal have not cosponsored bill yet.
- Reps. Brownley and Carbajal signed on to a letter in May with 11 other moderate DEM colleagues, expressing GOP-generated concern that Biden’s estate tax proposal will destroy farms. Sigh. Check the letter for your own legislators here.
More actions to take?
Lots of resources and talking points here: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1fvCzT93UdCGb1wYgHFfLMZdk30fJ5CNG_HU_2w88PnQ/edit
FAQ on how the rich are not like you and me…
What is the “Buy, Borrow, Die” lifestyle model you speak of?
Why this is a critical issue…
(theHill) There is a rule that has been part of the tax code for nearly a century that safeguards the wealth of the rich, but violates nearly every principle of sound tax policy. Yet it persists, costing our national coffers $40 billion or so each year. Even by federal government standards, this is a significant dollar figure today. Indeed, stumping on the campaign trail, presidential candidate Joe Biden proclaimed that closing this loophole could pay the tuition for all qualified applicants to attend community college for free.
This arcane rule is colloquially known as the “step up in basis” rule. It dictates that, to compute gains and losses, a taxpayer who sells an asset that he or she inherited must use the fair market value of the asset at the date of the death of the individual bestowing it, rather than the original purchase price, also known as cost basis, which is typically much lower.
By way of example, consider the situation of Jeff Bezos. Assume that he originally invested $100,000 to form Amazon and that the fair market value of his stock is now $100 billion. His tax basis would be $100,000, and if he sold his stock, he would be taxed on every dollar he received in excess of that amount. But if Bezos passed away tomorrow, the “step up in basis” rule would erase his entire accumulated gain from income taxation. His heirs would inherit the Amazon stock with a $100 billion tax basis, and could sell the stock tax free, depriving the Treasury of nearly $25 billion.
Bezos and his heirs are not alone. Application of this rule primarily inures to the benefit of the 1 percent and uber wealthy who own the bulk of appreciated assets. Few other tax rules hermetically seal wealth from income tax today, tomorrow, and forever. The origins of this rule are murky. The most probable reason for its institution back 1921 is heirs often did not know the original price of assets that their benefactors left to them, which had made accurate tax basis identifications rather difficult.
But that was then. Now, in most situations, tax basis identification is a cinch. The tax code requires proper tax basis identification of marketable securities, which comprise a significant share of inherited wealth, held by third party brokers like Morgan Stanley or Merrill Lynch. Many business assets need accurate depreciation and amortization records that facilitate tax basis tracing. Finally, real estate assets are subject to public recording systems that make ascertaining their original cost more simple to locate.
Reforming the status quo would therefore be relatively easy. Congress could mandate that upon death, instead of the “step up in basis” rule, a carryover tax basis rule would apply. In the case of the death of Bezos, his heirs would receive a $100,000 tax basis with the stock they inherited. Narrow exceptions for collectibles and other asset categories could be made if Congress deemed that desirable. Even with a few exceptions, Congress could still capture most of the revenue it currently forfeits.
So why have politicians not tried to pick this low hanging revenue fruit? It is largely because, almost half a century ago, Congress tried instituting a carryover tax basis rule, but eventually repealed it, due to an outcry from lobbyists insisting that accurate basis identification was an exercise in futility. However, tax basis information is readily available in the digital era. At a time when the nation hungers for infrastructure improvements, the federal budget deficit skyrockets, and payroll tax rates hurt the working class, the repeal of such anachronistic tax rules makes imminent sense.
The “step up in basis” rule in the tax code meets the criterion that it is a wholesale subsidy to the wealthy that has lasted much longer than the administrative rationale that had propelled and underpinned its existence. The only question is whether politicians will demonstrate the necessary leadership skills and courage to educate the public that the United States is in dire need of a tax code that will conform to the pressing economic needs of today, not one mired in all the obsolete concerns of yesterday.
Oh! But what about the farmers?!
Below is a classic example of the GOP’s fear-based lie of the “endangered small farmer.“
Back in 1999, the IRS concluded that almost no working farmers have paid any estate tax, even without the exemptions Biden is proposing.
“In April 2001, David Cay Johnston of The New York Times stumped the American Farm Bureau Federation, which lobbies furiously against the estate tax, by asking it to identify a single family farm—just one!—that got sold off because of estate taxes. The Farm Bureau couldn’t name any.”
This is because about 90% of farms are small — meaning they bring in $350,000 or less in revenue a year. And the median wealth for farm operator households was $827,300 in 2015, well under the constantly increasing inheritance tax exemptions.
In 2017, only 50 small businesses and family farms in the United States faced any estate tax and GOP Sen. Collins told the Wall Street Journal “We’ve taken care of the problem for the vast majority of family-owned businesses or ranchers in this country.” Today, fewer than 0.1 percent of deaths result in payment of any estate tax.
The “Biden administration’s plan for the rest of us non-family farmers/business people is simple – tax capital gains on inheritances when those gains exceed $1 million ($2 million for couples) with estates worth less than $11.7 million continuing to to be exempt from taxation. Only the wealthiest 2%-3% of decedents would pay the tax, according to the Tax Policy Center.)
This proposal...specifically stipulates that no taxes will be paid on a farm or certain other types of family business “until the interest in the business is sold or the business ceases to be family-owned and operated.” Imposing a tax penalty on family members who sell off grandpa’s back 40 has the effect of discouraging the dissolution of multigenerational family enterprises, not accelerating it.“
“U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack — a lifelong champion of farmers — wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, “Keeping step-up in basis doesn’t protect farmers, it protects investors. The people who are going to pay tax under the proposal have never plowed an acre. Don’t let lobbyists use American farmers as a smoke screen to keep a system that allows the rich to pass on their wealth tax-free.”
Read more here.
Quick study guide – “STOP PROTECTING BILLIONAIRES: CLOSE THE STEPPED-UP BASIS LOOPHOLE“
- “Stepped-up basis” is a huge tax loophole for rich people that allows them to avoid taxes on investment gains for their entire lives and pass those assets onto heirs who will never be taxed on that increase in value of the assets.
- President Biden would close this loophole that most benefits billionaires like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk. Along with related reforms, this loophole closure would raise $325 billionto pay for public services vital to those who will not inherit massive investment gains.
- Stepped-up basis will allow the families of billionaires who pay relatively little and sometimes nothing in taxes to dodge billions more in taxes. Ending stepped-up basis eventually would prevent ultra-wealthy families from dodging $1 trillion in taxes.
- Stepped-up basis is an accounting fiction that makes millions or even billions of dollars in investment gains simply disappear for tax purposes.
- Stepped-up basis helps create economic dynasties because lucky descendants can inherit a fortune of investment gains and not pay a penny of tax on them.
- Under the Biden tax plan, family farms and small businesses would not pay this tax as long as they stay in the family.
- Closing the stepped-up basis loophole is not a “second estate tax” because it taxes income from investment gains, not accumulated wealth. Moreover, any capital-gains taxes paid would reduce the size of the estate being taxed.
- Except in the case of family farms and businesses, a weaker reform of stepped-up basis known as “carryover basis” is not an acceptable alternative because it would still allow rich families to indefinitely dodge millions or billions of dollars in taxes.
President Biden wants to close a gaping loophole known as “stepped-up basis” that allows billionaire dynasties and other ultra-rich families to escape paying income tax on a lifetime’s worth of investment gains. If a billionaire such as Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk dies without selling their investments that have increased in value, those capital gains simply disappear for tax purposes. If whoever inherits the assets immediately sells them, no capital gains taxes are due. That is because according to a fiction in the tax rules the cost of each investment is no longer what the original owner paid for it, but rather its market value at the time of the owner’s death—the stepped-up basis.
This loophole loses $44-$54 billion a year needed for vital public services and widens our nation’s troubling income and wealth gaps. Devised when financial records were kept with pen and paper and the original cost of an asset could be lost between generations, stepped-up basis in an age of digitized and centralized data is nothing but a huge tax giveaway to the wealthy.
“Stepped-up basis” is a huge tax loophole for the rich that lets them dodge taxes on a lifetime of investment income.
- Increases in the value of assets like stocks and real estate—what are known as “capital gains”—are a kind of income, just like wages, rent, and bank interest. Capital gains are the difference between the amount you paid for the asset and how much you sold it for. If you bought a share of stock for $10 and five years later sell it for $30, you will owe capital gains tax on $20. (The top capital gains tax rate is just 20%, far below the 37% top tax rate on wages.)
- But if you died after five years without selling your stock and your descendant immediately sold it at the $30 price, they would owe zero capital gains tax. That is because this giant tax loophole allows your heirs to arbitrarily revalue the stock’s cost at its $30 price on the day you died. That is, the stock’s cost (also known as “basis”) is raised —stepped up—from the original purchase price to its value on the day of inheritance.
- To repeat: capital gains are only taxed when the underlying asset is sold. If someone dies without selling, those capital gains simply disappear for tax purposes. Whoever inherits those assets is never taxed on the gains made prior to inheritance.
- A prime real-life example is Jeff Bezos, the nation’s richest person thanks to the explosive growth of his Amazon stock, which he obtained for next to nothing as the company’s founder. As recently reported by ProPublica, the income taxes paid by Bezos between 2014-18 represented less than 1% of his nearly $100 billion income from capital gains over that period. (His capital-gains income increased by another $84 billion over the first 13 months of the pandemic.) In two years, 2007 and 2011, he paid no federal income taxes. Under stepped-up basis rules, after Bezos dies those hundreds of billions of dollars—by then, perhaps well over $1 trillion—in lifetime investment income will go forever untaxed.
President Biden would close the stepped-up-basis loophole for billionaires and millionaires, which together with related reforms, will raise $325 billion for vital public services.
- Biden would close the stepped-up basis loophole so that wealthy families cannot avoid tax on a lifetime of investment gains. He would tax as yet untaxed capital gains of over $1 million ($1.25 million including the increased value of a primary residence) at the owner’s death. For a married couple the first $2 million ($2.5 million including the increased value of a primary residence) would be tax-exempt. This would equalize the tax treatment of appreciated assets whether sold during the original owner’s life or held till death.
- Because so few people die with that amount of untaxed capital gains, only 2%-3% of decedents would pay the tax, according to the Tax Policy Center. Remember: the tax is not on a person’s total wealth, just the growth in that wealth that has not yet been taxed.
- Combined with two additional reforms that would eliminate other special privileges for how the rich are taxed on capital gains, the repeal of stepped-up basis for millionaires and billionaires would raise nearly $325 billion over 10 years.
- Biden’s American Families Plan would use that revenue to raise working-family incomes, provide universal pre-K, make childcare and college more affordable for working families, and make other public investments vital to all of us who won’t inherit millions of dollars in untaxed investment gains.
Stepped-up basis allows the families of billionaires who pay relatively little and sometimes nothing in taxes to dodge billions more in taxes. Ending stepped-up basis would eventually prevent billionaire families from dodging $1 trillion in taxes.
- According to economists Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman, of the $4.25 trillion of wealth currently held by U.S. billionaires, $2.7 trillion consists of untaxed capital gains. Those gains will completely escape taxation forever under current stepped-up-basis rules.
- Under the Biden plan, those gains would be taxed at the same top rate that applies to ordinary income: what Biden wants to raise in a separate reform to 39.6%. Ultimately, over $1 trillion in additional income tax revenue could be realized just from the nation’s few hundred richest families, assuming the $2.7 trillion was taxed at the 39.6% rate proposed by Biden.
Family farms and businesses would not pay this capital gains tax on farm or business assets as long as the farm or business stays in the family.
- Under Biden’s plan, family farmers and small-business owners will still be able to pass along their operations—no matter how much they’ve grown in value—to their children without any capital gains tax due on farm or business assets as long as the descendants continue to own and operate the farm or business. This means no farm or privately-owned business will ever need to be sold to pay tax on the capital gains of the farm or business. The only capital gains tax due from estates containing family farms or businesses will be from those with gains in excess of the exemption level on assets other than the farm or business.
- A lot of farmland is not owned by farmers: the biggest owner of U.S. farmland is Microsoft founder Bill Gates, who made his fortune from software, not sorghum. Politicians should stop using their supposed concern for real farmers to shield billionaires like Gates from paying their fair share of taxes.
Stepped-up basis is an income-tax loophole. Closing it will not create a “second estate tax” or an additional tax of any kind. It simply will equalize the income tax treatment of appreciated assets sold prior to death with those held until death.
- The income tax and the estate tax are different taxes. Income tax is paid annually on the income a person generates during life. All Americans with more than nominal incomes pay income tax. The estate tax applies to the total wealth a person passes to his inheritors, net of liabilities, at death. The estate tax only applies to the largest fortunes. Currently, fewer than 0.1% of estates (one in a thousand) is big enough to owe estate tax.
- Biden’s elimination of stepped-up basis is a reform to the income tax, requiring taxation of capital-gains income received during a lifetime but gone untaxed because the underlying assets were not sold.
- The income tax paid on previously untaxed capital gains will reduce the wealth subject to estate tax for those few rich families that pay the estate tax, just as the income tax paid on gains during the owner’s lifetime reduces the size of the eventual estate. Therefore, closing the stepped-up basis loophole will not result in double taxation because no estate tax will be paid on the wealth used to pay income tax on previously untaxed capital gains.
- Capital gains tax under Biden’s plan would only apply to unrealized gains in excess of $1 million per person and $2 million per couple ($1.25 million and $2.5 million, respectively, including the increased value of a primary residence), regardless of the size of the estate. Though very few, very rich families will owe capital gains taxes on previously untaxed gains, only a small fraction of that group will also owe the estate tax.
- Here is how the two taxes might apply to a great family fortune: If someone died owning assets worth $30 million for which they paid $20 million, their estate would owe capital gains taxes on that previously untaxed $10 million gain. Under Biden’s proposed reforms, that capital gains tax bill would be roughly $4 million. That $4 million payment would be subtracted from the estate’s $30 million value, leaving $26 million subject to the estate tax.
Except in the cases of family farms and businesses, “carryover basis” is not an acceptable alternative to ending stepped-up basis because it would still allow rich families to indefinitely dodge millions or billions of dollars in taxes.
- “Carryover basis” means that the inheritor of an asset keeps the same cost basis in that asset as the original owner, instead of changing the basis to the asset’s value at the time of inheritance. If stock bought for $10 was inherited when it was worth $30, the cost basis would remain $10 for the inheritor just as it was for the original owner.
- But as with stepped-up basis rules, under carryover basis no tax is paid on a lifetime of capital gains enjoyed by the original owner unless and until the new owner sells the assets. In fact, under carryover basis infinite lifetimes of capital gains can still go completely untaxed if the underlying asset is never sold.
- Implementing carryover basis rather than ending stepped-up basis would raise roughly $100 billion, much less than repealing stepped-up basis altogether (combined with other changes to the taxation of capital gains). (CBO’s explanation of carryover basis is here on p. 219.)
- Consistent with the views of more than a dozen members of Congress, the Biden plan recognizes that in the case of family farm and business assets, carryover basis is appropriate until such time as the assets are sold or cease to be used in the farm or business.
Rich people do not need to sell assets that have increased in value to benefit from the gain.
- Investment gains provide economic benefits to the rich even if they do not sell the assets that have gone up in value. The rich can borrow (at very low rates) against the value of their appreciated assets and live off those borrowed funds. They often can even get a tax deduction for the interest costs they pay to borrow the money.
- The gain from fast-appreciating investments in a hot stock or real estate market dwarfs the interest paid on loans they can secure. It’s so common for rich families to use this tax-avoiding strategy that it even has a catchy name: Buy-Borrow-Die.
- ProPublica’s report reveals the enormity of the buy-borrow-die tax avoidance strategy: Larry Ellison of Oracle had a credit line secured by $10 billion of his Oracle stock; Elon Musk had pledged 92 million shares of Tesla stock, currently worth over $50 billion, to secure personal loans; and Carl Icahn had several outstanding loans, including one from Bank of America for $1.2 billion. Under the Biden plan, the costly and grossly unfair buy-borrow-die tax avoidance strategy would end.
Repealing stepped-up basis will stop a lot of tax cheating by rich inheritors.
- The higher the assigned cost of an inherited asset, the smaller the gain when it is eventually sold and thus the less tax due. Therefore, the next generation has an incentive to illegally inflate the stated value of inherited assets (unless the original owner’s estate is so big it is the one in a thousand that is subject to the estate tax, in which case the incentive is to minimize asset values).
- Assessing capital gains taxes at the time of the death of the original owner takes away the heirs’ ability to illegally evade taxes through inflated asset valuations.
Repealing stepped-up basis will promote economic growth.
- Taxpayers who sell appreciated assets prior to death are required to pay tax on the gains they realize. By holding appreciated assets until death, they are able to avoid tax on their unrealized gains, even gains that have accrued over the course of decades. This distorts economic decision making by creating a financial incentive to hold unproductive assets, thereby creating a drag on the economy. This is especially true for those in the last decade or so of life.
- Biden’s reform of stepped-up basis equalizes the overall tax treatment of those who sell appreciated assets prior to death and those who hold appreciated assets until death, thereby removing an impediment to better economic decisions.
Stepped-up basis allows multiple applications of another special tax break for the rich.
- The basis of an asset is usually its purchase price, but it is sometimes lowered by tax breaks known as “depreciation” and “amortization.” Rich owners of expensive physical assets like office buildings use depreciation to get annual tax breaks that are supposed to represent declining value from wear and tear.
- But owners are allowed to depreciate their assets for tax savings much faster than they really wear out. They have to lower the cost basis of depreciated assets, however, so some of this depreciation tax savings is “recaptured” when the asset is sold.
- Owners of assets like sports teams—in which a lot of the value resides in intangibles like the brand name and goodwill of fans—are similarly allowed to “amortize” those intangibles for yearly tax savings, but with the corresponding reductions in cost basis.
- Stepped-up basis, by wiping out these cost-basis adjustments, allows inheritors of depreciated and amortized assets not only to dodge recapture of those unfair tax savings from the past, but start their own depreciation and amortization with a fresh slate.
- Prime example: billionaire owners of professional sports teams. As of January 2021, according to analysis by Americans for Tax Fairness and the Institute for Policy Studies, 64 American billionaires owned or co-owned 68 professional sports franchises. A large portion of the purchase price of sports teams is allocable to goodwill and other intangible assets, and can be amortized over 15 years, creating millions in income tax savings. According to ProPublica’s reporting, the deductions generated by sports-team ownership can reduce billionaire’s taxes to less than those of their players. Stepped-up basis compounds this problem. If the billionaire owner holds until death, as most do, and leaves the team to his spouse, those intangible assets can be amortized all over again. If the team passes to the children upon the spouse’s death, a third round of amortization deductions can be claimed.
Recordkeeping challenges no longer justify stepped-up basis.
- The historical justification for stepped-up basis was the difficulty associated with figuring out what a decedent paid for long held assets. That is no longer the case. We have now had decades of centralized, electronic recordkeeping. Further, under the so-called Cohanrule, taxpayers can produce evidence to support an estimation of cost basis. The Biden plan would strengthen the protection of the Cohan rule by directing the Treasury Department to issue regulations establishing safe harbors for the estimation of a decedent’s cost basis in assets where purchase-price records are not available.
- Most Americans will not face any issue with recordkeeping because of the exemption from tax on death ($1 million of gain per person, $2 million for a married couple). As of 2019, only 8% of adults (p. 42) had a net worth greater than $1 million.
- Those fortunate enough to have unrealized investment gains of greater than $1 million already need to maintain records of their cost basis in assets. Under current law, cost basis determines the gain on assets that are sold during lifetime and the basis taken by recipients of gifts. The challenge of locating purchase records is perhaps greater when the purchaser of an asset is deceased, but that is a difficulty those with substantial wealth should prepare for and have the resources to address.
- (theHill) Stop giving away capital gains taxes
- (the conversation) Family farms are struggling with two hidden challenges: health insurance and child care
- (RFDTV) Rural Healthcare Struggles With Rx Drug Costs
- (TNR) Democrats, Don’t Go Wobbly on the Estate Tax – Biden’s plan won’t hurt family farms and will affect only the rich. So why are some Democrats waffling?
- (NPR) The Democratic Push To Tax The Rich More Is 40 Years In The Making
- (Propublica) The Secret IRS Files: Trove of Never-Before-Seen Records Reveal How the Wealthiest Avoid Income Tax
- (ProPublica) You May Be Paying a Higher Tax Rate Than a Billionaire
- (Forbes) Every Democrat Should Support Closing The Step-Up Basis Loophole
- (cbpp.org) The Myth That the Estate Tax Threatens Small Farms
- (cbpp.org) No, the Estate Tax Isn’t a Heavy Burden on Small Businesses
- (the gazette.com) Fact Checker: Ad about ‘death tax’ harming Iowa farms mostly false
- (WSJ) Biden’s Tax Changes Won’t Hurt Family Farmers – Changes to the step-up in basis are needed to ensure that wealthy investors pay their fair share.
- (axne.house.gov) Dem. Rep. Letter to Pelosi, Hoyer and Neal on concern for farmers.
- (nytimes) Where Did Billionaires’ Billions Go? – A bombshell report raises questions about the tax bills of the wealthy.
- (Americanprogress.org) The American Families Plan Taxes Billionaires and Protects Family Farms and Businesses
- (businessinsider) When Jeff Bezos was worth $18 billion, he claimed a $4,000 tax credit intended for families earning less than $100,000, ProPublica reports
- (patriotic millionaires) It’s Time to End the Stepped-Up Basis
- (motherjones) Billionaires Now Own American Politics
- (money.cnn.com) No, the estate tax isn’t killing family farms
- (CNBC) House Democrats’ plan drops repeal of a tax provision for inheritances
- (FOXBusiness) Biden tax changes to exempt farmers, family businesses: WH official – Farmers won’t be affected by changes to stepped up basis, a WH official says
- (twitter) Close the Billionaires Loophole – It’s not about Farmers!
- (BillMoyers) The Death Tax Is Hog Wash