The 6 ways Biden's tax plan targets the rich

Denitsa Tsekova
·Reporter
·7 min read

To fund free community college, paid family leave, and affordable child care for everyday Americans, President Joe Biden is going after the income, investments, inheritance, business losses, and tax returns of the richest Americans.

“The tax increases in the American Families Plan would largely target wealthy families with at least $400,000 of income,” Janet Holtzblatt, senior fellow at the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center, told Yahoo Money. “While the restoration of the pre-2018 top rate of 39.6% applies to all taxable income, the provisions, in combination, would reduce the preferential treatment of investment income in the current tax code.”

WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 27: U.S. President Joe Biden speaks about updated CDC mask guidance on the North Lawn of the White House on April 27, 2021 in Washington, DC. President Biden announced updated CDC guidance, saying vaccinated Americans do not need to wear a mask outside when in small groups.  (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks about updated CDC mask guidance on the North Lawn of the White House on April 27, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

President Biden’s $1.8 trillion American Families Plan would increase the top individual income tax rate, tax capital gains as ordinary income for high earners, eliminate the “step-up basis” loophole by taxing inheritance, limit business losses, and expand the Medicare surcharge. The plan also would invest $80 billion in the Internal Revenue Service to improve tax compliance by the wealthy.

Those measures are expected to raise $1.5 trillion in revenue over the course of 10 years, according to estimates by the White House and the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget (CRFB).

“That's a reasonable estimate,” said Marc Goldwein, senior vice president and senior policy director for the CRFB, as long as the tax increases stay intact and any temporary tax or spending policies aren’t extended.

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Improving tax compliance

The biggest revenue generator is ramping up the IRS to go after wealthy Americans by increasing audits and requiring more disclosures. That provision is expected to bring in $700 billion over 10 years, according to estimates by the White House.

The $80 billion injection would go toward enforcement “against those with the highest incomes, rather than Americans with actual income of less than $400,000” the Treasury Department said in a press release on Wednesday.

The funding would be used to overhaul technology to improve compliance as well as hire and train auditors on complex investigations of corporations, partnerships, and wealthy individuals. Banks would also have to report inflows and outflows from taxpayers’ accounts, giving the IRS additional information about business revenue and expenses to better target audits.

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The wealthiest Americans fail to report more than a fifth of their taxable income by using sophisticated forms of tax evasion, a recent study by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) found.

“A well-functioning tax system requires that all taxpayers pay what they owe,” the Treasury Department said. “An unfortunate characteristic of the current system, however, is an asymmetric adherence to tax law by the nature of income received…Noncompliance is concentrated at the top.”

Raising the capital gains tax

The plan also would target the investments of the top 0.3% by treating capital gains and income similarly. The proposal would mean wealthy individuals may pay double the current rate they pay on their investments.

Read more: Here's how you should use your tax refund in 2021

Under the proposal, the top long-term capital gains and qualified dividends tax rate would increase to 39.6% from 23.8%, with an effective rate of 43.4% when the Medicare surcharge is added. The increased rate would apply to those earning over $1 million. Investors currently pay 23.8% as the top capital gains rate along with the 3.8% net investment income tax, known as the Medicare surtax.

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Americans who make more than $1 million get only 30% of their income from wages, while those who make less receive 70% of their income from wages, according to White House National Economic Council Director Brian Deese. Raising the capital gains rate would prevent those at the top from getting an effectively lower tax rate than those who receive most of their income from wages.

“That's about 500,000 households in the country that we're talking about,” Deese said at a press conference on Monday. “For the other 997 out of 1000 households in the country — or the other 150 million households in the country — this is not a change that will be relevant.”

Repealing step-up basis

Current tax law allows heirs to inherit stocks, real estate, and other assets without paying tax on capital gains that occurred while the original owner held the assets. If the heirs sell the assets, the capital gain is calculated using the value of the assets at inheritance — not when the assets were first acquired by the original owner — the step-up basis. That means the new owner typically pays a much lower tax when those assets are sold.

“There may be 30 years of capital gains that escape taxation,” Holtzblatt said. “There would be no leakage of capital gains because the person who held the assets died before they sold them.”

Under the proposal, gains over $1 million for single filers ($2.5 million for joint filers when combined with existing real estate exemptions) would be taxed. Those gains may not be taxed if the property is donated. Certain exemptions apply to family-owned businesses and farms.

Nearly 40% of the wealth of the top 1% is in the form of accrued and unrealized capital gains, a 2019 paper by Lily L. Batchelder and David Kamin, who are working or nominated for jobs in the Biden administration.

“It's a smart way to raise revenue,” Goldwein said. “It creates more premium capital added, reducing the incentive for people to just hold their stocks to the tax.”

The capital gains and step-up basis provisions — along with closing real estate and carried interest loopholes — would bring $400 billion in total revenue, according to the CFRB.

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Higher income taxes

Under Biden’s plan, higher-income Americans would also pay higher taxes on their income. The proposal restores the top individual income tax rate to 39.6% for taxable incomes above $400,000; that rate is currently 37%, established by the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 during the Trump administration.

Read more: Taxes 2021: What you need to know about IRS Free File

The current rate alone gives a couple with taxable income of $2 million an annual tax cut of more than $36,400, according to estimates by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Reverting the tax rate would bring in $100 billion over 10 years according to the CFRB.

Limiting business losses

Biden’s proposal would make permanent the current limit on excess business losses extended by the American Rescue Plan. The restriction prevents pass-through business owners from taking their business losses and subtracting them from their non-business income. Eighty percent of those claimed losses benefit those who make over $1 million, according to the White House.

The provision would generate $100 billion over 10 years, according to the CFRB.

Medicare surtax

High-income workers pay a 3.8% net investment income tax, known as the Medicare surtax, on their earnings. But some taxpayers making over $400,000 can avoid the tax through loopholes. For instance, physically active business income is not subject to that tax, so a partner or an owner of a S Corporation who makes business income from that partnership doesn’t have to pay the tax.

Biden’s proposal would apply that tax consistently to those earning more than $400,000, bringing in $200 billion over 10 years, according to the CFRB.

Denitsa is a writer for Yahoo Finance and Cashay, a new personal finance website. Follow her on Twitter @denitsa_tsekova

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