Tax reform is here. What does it mean for high-net-worth individuals?

As we enter tax season, the real-world effects of the recently enacted Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 are becoming clearer for many taxpayers. Although there remains a great deal of detail to be understood, from what we know today, there are plenty of changes for high-net-worth individuals to be excited about.

Estate taxes

A significant change in the new legislation is an increase in the estate and gift tax exemption to roughly $11.2 million ($22.4 million for married couples). This doubles the former exemption of $5.6 million for individuals and $11.2 million for couples. Only a small percentage of households paid the tax at the old levels, and even fewer will pay it now.

Tax reform

The real effects of the recently enacted Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 are becoming clearer for many taxpayers.

For high-net-worth households who might have been affected before but are now safely under the line, this change could make a difference in the way they approach their financial future.

“The new tax laws may change their planning,” said Timothy Barrett, senior vice president and wealth advisor based in Argent’s Louisville office. “They may have created trusts to capture and preserve a $5- to $6-million estate tax exemption, or double that for a couple. With the exemption amounts now doubled, couples with estates currently smaller than $10 million may be able to simplify their planning tremendously or switch their focus to income tax planning. But be aware that most of the personal tax changes revert back to 2017 law after 2025, which complicates permanent solutions.”

“Depending on how much you have and what age you are, 2018 ought to be a year to review and decide what is right for you and your individual financial situation,” said Howard Safer, CEO of Argent’s Nashville office.

Tax bracket changes

Marginal tax rates under the new tax bill will be lower for many taxpayers starting in 2018 and running through 2025. The top rate has been reduced from 39.5 percent to 37 percent, and will now apply to individuals with over $500,000 in income and couples with over $600,000.

Previously, the top tax rate had applied to individuals making $426,700 or more and couples making $480,050 or more.

A couple filing as “married/joint” with combined income between $237,000 and $351,000, for instance, will see their marginal tax rate fall from 33 percent to 24 percent. Assuming there are no changes in other deductions, this could result in a tax savings of around $10,000.

“Lowered brackets are one piece of much more complex tax change. It all depends on your mix of state and local taxes, mortgage interest and other itemized deductions and whether it makes sense to use the new higher standard deduction. Some people will end up keeping more of their income, and the rate changes are meaningful for all tax brackets. But there are too many moving parts at this point to make a definite call on how much someone will save,” said John McCollum, senior vice president – investments in Argent’s Atlanta office.

“Even though many details are yet to be worked out, the change does benefit high earners who aren’t independently wealthy, because you don’t jump to that top rate so fast now, ” Barrett says.

Pass-through income

A new deduction for pass-through businesses could benefit many high income earners who have an ownership stake in a business. Sole proprietors, LLCs, partnerships and S corporations may be able to deduct 20 percent of qualified business income, albeit with some limitations. This may create an opportunity for certain taxpayers to form limited liability companies that would be eligible for the deduction.

“People will be trying to take advantage of pass-through entities,” Barrett says. “Any high-earner who can work on a non-employee basis will want to explore using a limited liability company.”

Fewer itemized deductions

Some taxpayers may see a benefit from the near-doubling of the standard deduction, which has been raised to $12,000 for individuals and $24,000 for couples in 2018, up from $6,350 and $12,700, respectively, in 2017.

However, new rules regarding itemized deductions — affecting state and local taxes, medical expenses and mortgage and home equity loan interest, among other areas — will play out differently for every taxpayer depending on their individual financial situation. Some may opt for the standard deduction when they may not have before.

“One approach that may be useful for many taxpayers is bunching, in which deductions such as charitable donations are pooled every other year to maximize tax savings through itemization, with taxpayers taking the standard deduction on alternating years,” Safer says.

Boost to the economy

The tax bill’s benefits to corporations are also likely to benefit individual high-net-worth investors. In addition to receiving a permanent cut in the corporate tax rate, from 35 percent to 21 percent, companies will benefit from a sharp drop in the tax rate for repatriation of foreign earnings. This change will allow companies with large amounts of overseas income to bring it back to the U.S., paying 15.5 percent instead of the old rate of 35 percent.

“Many companies had accumulated large amounts of cash earned overseas, and the vast majority was just sitting there. By reducing their tax burden, it eliminates barriers, real and perceived. Companies are going to increase dividends and pay more to employees — you can find hundreds of those stories. More importantly, that cash is going to get invested,” McCollum says.

There is a great deal of detail about these changes that won’t be fully understood until the IRS releases its regulations on how to put these new tax changes into effect.

“The last major tax reform was in 1986, and it took years to fully understand and make that come together,” Safer says. “These laws will evolve in their interpretation.”

“The effects on individuals and pass-through businesses will be more complicated, but the benefit will be real for sure. It just remains to be seen how these various pieces will end up working together to change behavior,” McCollum says. “The bottom line of the tax change is that it’s putting more money in the hands of businesses and consumers to spend and invest instead of sending to the government, and I think that’s why the market has reacted so strongly.”