Steve Jobs Estate Taxes – Which Way is “Up” for the Jobs Family and for You?
by Robert A. Hull
As the world mourns the loss of innovative tech giant Steve Jobs, we learn he may have left his wife, Laurene, and family up to $6.78 billion dollars in Disney and Apple stock.
He also left his family in a quandary not of his own making, namely, how to negotiate financial pitfalls while traveling on uncertain terrain.
Unfortunately, with the recent failure of the so-called congressional Super Committee to address tax and spending reform, the “Bush tax cuts” are set to expire in 2013.
Capital Gains Tax Legislation: As it Stands Now
If there are no further changes in the law:
▪ The current 15 percent capital gains tax rate is set to rise to 20 percent,
▪ Income tax rates are due to increase,
▪ The current $5 million gift/estate tax exemption will return to a $1 million exemption.
The key takeaway is “absent further legislation”, i.e., no one knows what the law will be in 2013.
At least as far as the Jobs family is concerned, if they sell the stock before 2013, and (here’s the kicker) if indeed the Bush tax cuts lapse, the Jobs family may avoid almost hundreds of millions in capital gains tax they would have to pay at the higher 20 percent rate if they sold after 2013.
The great news is that the beneficiaries of Steve Jobs’ stock will receive an automatic step-up in basis of the stock to the value of such stock on Jobs’ date of death (including a step-up on Laurene’s ½ community property interest in such stock) – i.e., they will receive the benefit of the increase in the stock’s value since acquisition, tax free. However, any further increases (after Jobs’ death) in the value of the stock interest Jobs’ passed to his heirs will be subject to capital gains when the stock is sold.
So, there’s a capital gains tax of 15 percent or ‘possibly’ 20 percent, which prompt some questions:
1. How are individuals and businesses supposed to make certain financial decisions in the face of such uncertainty?
2. And, how are financial and estate planning professionals supposed to give sage advice and counsel when none of them know what the law will be in 14 months?
Steve Jobs’ Estate Taxes: Looking Up
The answer to both questions above is that effective planning in such uncertain times is a challenge. Obviously, if considerations other than tax consequences are paramount, then those business decisions may take care of themselves.
If the Jobs family wishes to retain Steve Jobs’ control of Apple, for example, they might hold on to the stock, risking a higher tax in the future if Congress does nothing or increases capital gains.
But, if the tax consequences are the most important consideration (hey, who really wants to give the government $876 million?) they may wish to sell the stock. But, the Jobs family will be divesting themselves of Steve Jobs’ legacy.
Tax and Estate Planning for Your Family
Many of you may be facing similar questions, though not on the scale of the Jobs family: To sell or not to sell? To gift or not to gift? For example, do you as parents and owners of a family business utilize the current $5 million gift tax exemption to gift portions of the family business to your children, even though you may prefer to do so in a few years?
If you do so before 2013, you can pass along $5 million of business value tax-free. If not, you risk having to pay gift tax on the portion of the business you pass which is worth over $1 million. . . unless Congress takes some other action, of course.
Given our government’s penchant for last minute deal-making, short-term fixes, and for striking bargains that are difficult to predict (like a “default” return to a $1 million exemption in 2013 absent further action), it may not be prudent to wait till the last minute to make these financial decisions.
Some decisions take time and fit into a family’s overall strategy (e.g., making gifts of minority interests in a family business or property, over time) and you may not have the necessary time to effectuate such a strategy or sell the stock before the new law goes into effect.
So, which way is up? And, where does this leave us all?
It leaves us in the same boat we’ve been in longer than any of us care to imagine – making life-altering financial decisions based on less information than we wish we had. However, it is nonetheless helpful to have a first mate on this trip, a professional who can help you best negotiate the rocks and reefs which may be lying just below the surface.