By Richard Rubin
June 17 (Bloomberg) -- Bill and Hillary Clinton have long supported an estate tax to prevent the U.S. from being dominated by inherited wealth. That doesn’t mean they want to pay it.
To reduce the tax pinch, the Clintons are using financial planning strategies befitting the top 1 percent of U.S. households in wealth. These moves, common among multimillionaires, will help shield some of their estate from the tax that now tops out at 40 percent of assets upon death.
The Clintons created residence trusts in 2010 and shifted ownership of their New York house into them in 2011, according to federal financial disclosures and local property records.
Among the tax advantages of such trusts is that any appreciation in the house’s value can happen outside their taxable estate. The move could save the Clintons hundreds of thousands of dollars in estate taxes, said David Scott Sloan, a partner at Holland & Knight LLP in Boston.
“The goal is really be thoughtful and try to build up the nontaxable estate, and that’s really what this is,” Sloan said. “You’re creating things that are going to be on the nontaxable side of the balance sheet when they die.”
The Clintons’ finances are receiving attention as Hillary Clinton tours the country promoting her book, “Hard Choices.” She said in an interview on ABC television that the couple was “dead broke” and in debt when they left the White House in early 2001. After being criticized for her comments, she told ABC’s “Good Morning America” that she understood the financial struggles of Americans.
Having lost the Democratic presidential nomination to Barack Obama in 2008, Hillary Clinton is now deciding whether to run again in 2016.
In her last campaign, Clinton supported making wealthier people pay more estate tax by capping the per-person exemption at $3.5 million and setting the top rate at 45 percent, a policy Obama still supports. Congress decided to go in the other direction and Obama went along as part of a broader compromise. The per-person exemption is now $5.34 million.
“The estate tax has been historically part of our very fundamental belief that we should have a meritocracy,” Hillary Clinton said at a December 2007 appearance with billionaire investor Warren Buffett, who supports estate taxes and is using charitable donations to reduce his eventual bill.
Without the estate tax, Hillary Clinton said, the country could become “dominated by inherited wealth.”
Nick Merrill, a spokesman for Hillary Clinton, said in an e-mail that the couple’s finances are an “open book.” He didn’t answer additional questions about their finances or her current views on the estate tax.
Two estate-planning advisers are listed on the Westchester County documents, Linda Hirschson of Greenberg Traurig LLP in New York and Rorrie Gregorio of Marcum LLP in New York. Both specialize in estate and tax planning for high net-worth families; neither returned a call for comment.
The Clintons have consistently supported higher taxes on the income and estates of the wealthiest Americans, even as their paid speeches and book royalties moved them into the echelons of the nation’s top earners over the past decade.
At the end of 2012, the Clintons were worth $5.2 million to $25.5 million, according to financial disclosures that Hillary Clinton filed in 2013 as she was leaving her position as secretary of state.
That total excludes the value of their homes in Washington and in Chappaqua, New York, any savings since 2012 and gifts already made to their daughter, Chelsea, who is expecting their first grandchild later this year.
Under federal disclosure rules for administration officials, the Clintons provided their net worth in a broad range. Most of the assets reported were in a single cash account at JPMorgan Chase & Co. that held between $5 million and $25 million. As of 2010, they had two JPMorgan accounts, indicating a net worth of as much as $50 million.
Since she left the government last year, Hillary Clinton, 66, has been giving speeches for hundreds of thousands of dollars each. Bill Clinton, 67, also makes paid speeches and appearances, receiving $200,000 each in October 2012 from Vanguard Group Inc. and Deutsche Bank AG, according to Hillary Clinton’s disclosures.
As president in 2000, Bill Clinton vetoed a proposal to repeal the estate tax, though he backed less significant changes to cushion family-owned businesses and farms against the potential effects of the tax.
“If you’re serious about wanting to deal with the problems that estate tax presents, let’s get after it and solve them,” he said on Aug. 31, 2000. “But we have to proceed on grounds of fiscal responsibility and fairness.”
His successor, George W. Bush, signed a law that narrowed the estate tax and eliminated it for 2010 only. That law was set to expire on Dec. 31, 2010. Unless Congress acted, the rate was scheduled to rise and the exemption was scheduled to drop.
At the end of 2010, Congress set the lifetime exemption from the gift tax for each individual at $5 million, up from $1 million. Lawmakers also unified that exemption with the estate tax, so that gifts made while alive counted toward the estate-tax exemption at death.
Those rules were scheduled to expire at the end of 2012, offering what looked like a one-time chance to use up the exemption with gifts -- even if tax policy later swung in the other direction.
In 2011 and 2012, many high-net-worth families moved money out of estates and into trusts to take advantage of the more favorable rules.
U.S. taxpayers reported making $122 billion in nontaxable gifts on the returns they filed in 2012, more than four times the amount in each of the two previous years, according to the Internal Revenue Service.
In January 2013, Congress removed the expiration date from the higher exemption and kept indexing it for inflation. It is now $5.34 million per person and $10.68 million per married couple. Just 3,700 estates will owe estate taxes this year, equaling 0.14 percent of people who will die, according to estimates by the Tax Policy Center, a nonpartisan research group in Washington.
By making gifts during their lifetime, people take advantage of their estate-tax exemptions in an orderly way, using techniques to stuff as many assets as possible into the nontaxable portion of the estate.
That appears to be what the Clintons did, Sloan said, using a structure known as a qualified personal residence trust that allows them to discount the value of their house for estate tax purposes.
“You try to do things that can reduce the value of what you’ve given,” he said.
According to county property records, the Clintons split their ownership of the house into separate 50 percent shares, and then placed those shares into trusts.
That maneuver has multiple potential benefits, starting with the fact that any appreciation in the house’s value will now happen outside the estate.
Additionally, using IRS interest rates, they can assume a discounted value for the house. Splitting the property into 50 percent shares also allows a valuation discount, because a partial interest in an indivisible house isn’t worth as much as a complete interest.
It’s impossible to know what value the Clintons claimed for the house without seeing their gift-tax return. They last released tax returns during Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.
Residence trusts have a set term after which the property is transferred to a beneficiary. Following that, the Clintons could pay rent to the new owner to continue living in the house, which is another way to move assets outside of the estate.
For the asset to move completely outside the estate, the Clintons would have to outlive the term of the trust. Such trusts typically last for 10 to 15 years to maximize the discount applied to the property’s value.
Creating two separate trusts allows the Clintons to spread risk. They can set different lengths for each trust and if one of them dies, the other’s trust wouldn’t be affected.
Also in 2010, the Clintons created a life insurance trust. That can help defray the cost of estate taxes, Sloan said. They have had a separate life insurance trust since 1996, according to the disclosure records.
These moves are “pretty standard” planning for people who know they will be subject to the estate tax, said Ken Brier, an estate tax lawyer in Needham, Massachusetts.
“If you’re the Clintons and you live in a fishbowl,” he said, “you’re not going to push the envelope in doing cutting-edge planning.”