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Booker’s Plan to Eliminate Step-up in Basis and Expand the Estate Tax

2 min read

Democratic presidential candidate and New Jersey Senator Cory Booker has proposed eliminating step-up in basisThe step-up in basis provision adjusts the value, or “cost basis,” of an inherited asset (stocks, bonds, real estate, etc.) when it is passed on, after death. This often reduces the capital gains tax owed by the recipient. The cost basis receives a “step-up” to its fair market value, or the price at which the good would be sold or purchased in a fair market. This eliminates the capital gain that occurred between the original purchase of the asset and the heir’s acquisition, reducing the heir’s tax liability. on assets passed to heirs after death and restoring the estate taxAn estate tax is imposed on the net value of an individual’s taxable estate, after any exclusions or credits, at the time of death. The tax is paid by the estate itself before assets are distributed to heirs. to 2009 levels.

With this proposal, Sen. Booker joins the growing number of Democrats that are targeting capital gains as a source of additional revenue for the federal government.

Under current law, when a property owner dies and transfers assets to heirs, the cost basis of those assets is increased, or stepped-up, to their fair market value. Step-up in basis reduces capital gains tax liability on property passed down to an heir by excluding from taxation any appreciation in the property’s value that occurred during the decedent’s lifetime. If the property is sold immediately after it is transferred, there is no capital gains taxA capital gains tax is levied on the profit made from selling an asset and is often in addition to corporate income taxes, frequently resulting in double taxation. These taxes create a bias against saving, leading to a lower level of national income by encouraging present consumption over investment. owed.

Step-up in basis discourages taxpayers from realizing capital gains since they can defer the taxA tax is a mandatory payment or charge collected by local, state, and national governments from individuals or businesses to cover the costs of general government services, goods, and activities. on the assets accrued value indefinitely. Removing step-up in basis would reduce this “lock-in effect” and increase federal revenue by making capital gains taxable at death. Eliminating step-up in basis would also remove a tax expenditureTax expenditures are a departure from the “normal” tax code that lower the tax burden of individuals or businesses, through an exemption, deduction, credit, or preferential rate. Expenditures can result in significant revenue losses to the government and include provisions such as the earned income tax credit (EITC), child tax credit (CTC), deduction for employer health-care contributions, and tax-advantaged savings plans. that primarily benefits high-income taxpayers.

Eliminating step-up in basis, however, would increase compliance costs by requiring heirs to verify the original cost basis of property with a capital gain. Eliminating step-up in basis would also increase the tax burden on transferred property, the total value of which is currently taxed by the estate tax. Currently, the estate tax is levied at a rate of 40 percent on the value of all property transferred at death that surpasses an exemption of $11.4 million for individual filers ($22.8 million for married couples because of exemption portability between spouses).

Sen. Booker’s plan would require heirs to pay capital gains taxes on transferred property at death. Under this regime, heirs would be required to pay the entirety of the tax on the property’s accrued gains when it is transferred upon the death of the original owner. Another option would be to allow “carryover basis” for transferred assets before death, so that the heir would inherit the asset’s original basis from the original owner. However, tax would only be due when the asset is ultimately sold.

Removing step-up in basis would encourage taxpayers to realize capital gains and it would plug a hole in the current income tax, while increasing federal revenue. Combined, however, with the estate tax, this would result in a significant tax burden on certain saving by requiring both the appreciation in and total value of transferred property to be taxed at death. A way to ease this would be to eliminate step-up in basis and the estate tax at the same time.

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