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Practice Management

"The uncertainty is often more stressful than the reality" when it comes to planning for a change in administration.

This Practice Management article is intended for financial advisors only (registered representatives of broker/dealers or associated persons of Registered Investment Advisors).
 

The two presidential candidates could barely have more different tax policy agendas.

Donald Trump wants to cut taxes across the board, while Hillary Clinton wants to raise rates and limit write-offs for upper-income taxpayers. They don’t disagree on everything, however: neither wants to tinker with payroll taxes for Social Security and Medicare.

What, then, can a financial planner tell his or her clients?

Many are trying to be prepared for either possibility.

“There is always so much posturing during an election that we caution our clients not to make any changes in their portfolios or wealth anticipating possible outcomes,” says Liz Miller, of Summit Financial, in Summit, New Jersey.

Here’s a cheat-sheet on each candidate's proposals:

The Trump Plan
Echoing the proposals of past GOP tax reform plans, Trump would slash the top marginal rates and condense the current six individual federal income tax brackets to three: 12%, 25%, and 33%.

Since the top marginal rate currently is 39.6%, the highest-income earners would benefit the most from Trump’s plan. He also has proposed eliminating the alternative minimum, estate, gift, and investment income taxes, and lowering rates on business income, which would be taxed at no more than 15%. Capital gains would be taxed at a maximum rate of 20%.

“Trump’s goal of eliminating the estate tax all together could save some families millions of dollars and cost the government billions in tax revenue, doing away with the need for most estate tax planning for families,” says Bryan Lee, a certified financial planner with Strategic Financial Planning in Plano, Texas.

Those earning $100,000 or less would pay no more than 10%, Trump says, but he has not elaborated on how he would pay for the cuts.

While overall tax planning under the Trump plan—particularly for high-net-worth clients—would be streamlined, other matters, such as pass-through income, would become more complicated, according to analysis by Moody’s Analytics.

Two other possible challenges loom: Congress may decide to tackle broad-based corporate tax reform as well as small-business taxation. Those measures could affect family, pass-through, and small C Corporations.

Clients who own businesses, such as Sub-Chapter S Corporations, for example, could be taxed at lower corporate rates rather than at their personal (often higher) federal rates. That would be a boon for those who want to shield business income.

“For those business owners with C-corps, you are looking at a significant tax-rate cut, from 35% to 15%,” Lee adds. “Most small-business owners will be looking at a rate of 25% or 33%, since they most often pay taxes at the personal tax rates.”

The Clinton Plan
The Clinton plan would raise taxes and limit deductions high-net-worth clients pay for an array of social benefits, from free public college tuition (for families earning $125,000 or less) to infrastructure spending.

Itemized deductions would be capped, and there would be a 4% “fair share” surtax on income above $5 million. That would raise the top marginal rate to 43.6%, and is expected to affect two of every 10,000 taxpayers. Those making more than $1 million annually would be subject to the “Buffett rule”—which is a minimum effective tax rate of 30%.

More Americans would be affected by a proposed limit on itemized write-offs that would be capped at no more than 28% of income. The top rate on dividends on capital gains would be raised, to 28%, up from 20%.

The cap on write-offs would make mortgage interest and taxes less valuable for high-bracket individuals, notes Eric Toder, co-director for tax policy at The Urban Institute, a Washington, D.C., think-tank.

“For every $1,000 in deductions at the 39.6% bracket, you’d get $396 back today. Under the Clinton plan, you’d get $280. Some upper-income people are going to be upset,” Toder says.

On the estate tax, Clinton would move the code back to the 2009 law and close loopholes such as sheltering funds in multiple retirement accounts. That would restore the 45% rate on estates with a $3.5 million exemption. Some four out of every 1,000 Americans are expected to be affected.

The current estate-tax exemption is about $11 million, or $5.45 million per person, adjusted for annual inflation in 2016. Gifting would be limited to a $1 million lifetime exemption.

“Those who will benefit the most from Secretary Clinton’s economic proposals would be low- and middle-income households,” the Moody’s analysis found.

If Clinton is elected, adds Lee, "it may make sense to pay down or pay off mortgages, depending on their interest rate, since itemized deductions would be capped at 28 cents on the dollar.”

“Clinton’s website is full of the sort of detailed discussions and white papers you would expect from a presidential campaign,” says Guy McPhail, CFP of the GM Group, in Pennington, New Jersey.

“But realistically, none of those proposals stand much chance of passing. Even if, as polls suggest, Clinton wins by a landslide, and even if Democrats win the Senate, the House of Representatives is likely to remain in Republican hands. ... Odds of any significant tax reform seem low,” says McPhail.

What to Watch
“Both the current and proposed tax changes favor capital gains over ordinary income, and this keeps our taxable investment and tax-deferred retirement strategies consistent for now," says Miller. "What we have learned from many past tax law changes is the uncertainty is often more stressful than the reality.”

The best course may be to prepare clients for some long-term realities: More than 10,000 Americans are turning 65 every day, and no candidate has addressed how to pay for increasingly expensive social insurance programs that carry an unfunded liability of an estimated $80 trillion.

Of the two candidates, Clinton appears to be more fiscally conservative on Social Security and Medicare, calling for raising the current earnings cap of $118,500, to pay for the programs. That means higher-income working taxpayers would pay a greater percentage of their salaries to pay for the programs. The only thing Clinton and Trump agree on is that they will not cut benefits to these popular programs, although neither has said how they will be funded.

Many planners, though, are in a holding pattern with clients until they have a better view of the election’s outcome and composition of Congress.

“What I’m telling clients is: ‘Ignore them,’” says Jim Oliver, a CFP/CPA from San Antonio. “After the elections, when we know who will be sitting in the White House and who will control Congress, I may spend a bit more time looking at the victor’s plan and just how viable it will be in the Congress with whom they must work.”

Other planners, such as Jordan Rummel, CFP, of LVM Capital Management in Portage, Michigan, are taking a more fundamental approach with clients, one that steers them away from politics.

“Taxes are certainly part of the equation when it comes to full-service wealth management, but taxes will only be one issue that changes with the election,” Rummel says. “We will stick to the clients’ goals and objectives and adapt to circumstances as they change. No need to change the course now with an undecided election.”

—by John F. Wasik

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