Rich New Yorkers Face a Nasty Estate Tax Surprise

New York City. Park Avenue at dusk.
Patrick Batchelder/Alamy
By Robert Frank

If you're a New York multimillionaire, you now have another incentive to stay alive.

A change this month in New York's estate tax, which was billed as tax relief for the wealthy, contains a hidden wrinkle that could leave some multimillionaires with a much bigger surprise tax upon their death. Certain estates could even wind up with a tax rate of 164 percent on portions of their estates, according to one tax expert.

The changes were intended to ease the tax bill for wealthy New Yorkers and prevent them from fleeing to lower-tax states. A report from the Tax Foundation found that New York had the highest tax burden in the country as a percentage of state income. It found that New Yorkers spent 12.6 percent of their per capita income in 2011 on state and local taxes.

"It's nonsensical," said Kevin Matz, an accountant and attorney in White Plains, N.Y. %VIRTUAL-article-sponsoredlinks%"The governor said this is about making New York a better climate for the wealthy. It's had the opposite effect."

On its face, the new law seems like tax relief. Under the previous law, New Yorkers paid estate taxes of 3.06 percent to 16 percent on the value of estates over $1 million. The new law raises that exclusion to $2.062 million this year and gradually increases it to more than $5 million by 2017.

But because the law also phases out certain credits related to federal taxes, people who have estates valued just above the $2 million threshold could get massive estate tax bills. An analysis by U.S. Trust found that a New York resident who dies today with a taxable estate of $2,165,625 could have to pay an estate tax of over $112,050. That represents a tax of over 100 percent on the value of the estate over $2,062,000.

It gets worse in a few years. Matz said that assuming that the exclusion rises to $5,250,000, a New Yorker with a taxable estate of $5,512,500 would have to pay an estate tax of $430,050. That's a marginal tax rate of 164 percent on the value of the estate above the exclusion.

"It's a bait and switch," Matz said.

The solution, he said, is to not phase out the tax credits. Or, the state could also allow them to phase out over a much longer period of time.

The New York State Society of CPAs and other groups have sent letters to New York lawmakers in hopes of getting a quick fix. So far, there has been little response.

A spokesman for the New York State Division of the Budget said that while the marginal rates may have changed, "No one's taxes have gone up. The dollar amount they pay does not increase."

He added that the tax change has insured that by the time it's fully implemented in 2017, 90 percent of New York's estates will no longer be taxed.

Matz, however, said the issue is not just a problem for the so-called rich. When you add up the value of property, pension plans, 401(k) plans and other assets, a New Yorker with just over $2 million in New York "is not exactly super rich. In a state with a high cost of living, that's not that unusual."


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Rich New Yorkers Face a Nasty Estate Tax Surprise
The 1099 forms you received from brokerages and other financial institutions might not be the last ones they send. It's common for them to issue corrected versions a little later. Consider getting your tax return ready to go, then waiting until close to April 15 before submitting it. That way, you can incorporate any last-minute changes and avoid having to file an amended return.
Pay attention to when you sell any holding, because the capital gains tax rates differ for long-term and short-term holdings. Short-term capital gains are taxed at your ordinary income tax rate, which could top 30 percent. Long-term gains (those held for more than a year) get preferential rates, which are zero percent for those in low-income brackets and 15 percent for most of us.
If you own underwater stocks, consider selling them for a loss. You can use those losses to offset gains from other sales, reducing your taxes owed. You can always buy back the asset later, if you still believe in it -- just be sure to wait for 31 days to pass, to observe the "wash sale rule."
If you're planning to sell one or more holdings that will give you a really big gain, submit an amended W-4 form to increase your withholding, or send the IRS an estimated tax payment. Underpaying your taxes significantly during the year can lead to a penalty at tax time. You may be protected by a "safe harbor" provision, though, which can save you from having to jump through those hoops.
If you're planning to buy shares of a mutual fund, determine when it will distribute its dividends. Many funds do so near the end of the year, and when that happens, the fund's share price will drop by the amount of the distribution -- which is taxable to shareholders. It's better to just wait until after that payout to buy in.
Mutual funds with high turnover ratios (reflecting a lot of buying and selling in a fund) have expenses for these trades. It's worth favoring funds with low turnover ratios, especially index funds and index-tracking ETFs, which simply hold onto the mix of securities in a given index, without a lot of trading activity. (Index funds generally outperform their higher-turnover counterparts, too.)
Boost the power of your Individual Retirement Accounts by making your annual contributions early in the year, giving the funds more time to grow. Over decades, it can make a significant difference.
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