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The Capital Gains Dilemma


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With changes to capital gains on the horizon, consider these strategies to optimize your plan.

As questions continue to swirl around the scope of potential changes to tax policy, many investors are rightfully concerned about possible changes to the capital gains tax. We continue to advise that it is far better to plan for, but not attempt to predict, potential policy changes. The final form of any future changes to tax law are uncertain, and history tells us that, even if they are made, such changes may not endure as economic and political environments shift. That is why we believe the best strategies focus on long-term goals and incorporate flexibility to adapt to changing circumstances.

With this uncertainty in mind, many investors are trying to assess whether they should realize capital gains today or risk potential higher tax liability in the future. Below, we offer six considerations to ensure your plan can flex to accommodate changing capital gains policy and that you are positioned to confidently achieve your long-term goals.

President Biden's Proposed Capital Gains Policy Changes


Align Assets with Goals

It is important to consider the big picture before making any major changes to your portfolio; while tax exposure is an important component, the outlook and purpose of the asset should also be evaluated.


  • Are certain assets critical to fund near-term lifetime spending needs? Or would different assets serve the same purpose without having to liquidate?
  • When evaluating an individual stock with a low-cost basis, does the position represent a concentration or overweight position in the portfolio? If the answer is “yes,” today may be an opportune time to reduce the position along with the risk associated with the concentration. Northern Trust defines a concentration as an individual security that makes up 15% or more of a client’s entire portfolio.

Tax Diversification and Bracket Management

You want to make sure the higher rates would actually impact you. The proposed higher capital gain tax rates would not kick in until your income reaches $1 million. If your income fluctuates greatly, for example, it may be possible there are years where your income falls below this threshold. In addition, tax diversification strategies —mixes of taxable, tax deferred and nontaxable accounts with varying rules for taxation and withdrawals — can help mitigate the impact of higher future tax rates. Assessing the impact of future capital gains requires detailed consideration of current and future income projections and the resulting tax brackets.


  • Does your income fluctuate? Is it possible that your income could fall below the $1 million threshold in the future, thereby allowing you to take advantage of lower capital gains tax rates?
  • Have you considered tax diversification strategies to help minimize your tax liability and provide optionality?

Tax Deferral vs. Realizing Capital Gains Today at Historically Low Rates

If you believe you will remain in the highest tax bracket (your taxable income will remain over $1 million) and are thinking about selling an asset to realize a capital gain and reinvest the proceeds, the power of compounding interest on the portion used to pay taxes is lost. Pushing a tax liability far into the future (even if it occurs at a higher rate) may be advantageous if you do not need the proceeds to fund near-term goals.


  • Under Northern Trust’s Capital Market Assumptions, our research shows that it may be prudent for investors to consider “up-costing” (selling today at lower rates) if funding near- and intermediate-term (1-10 year) goals. For longer-term goals, the up-cost benefit dissipates, and investors may choose to retain optionality in the event that future tax policy changes lowers the capital gains tax rate.
  • If the rate of return of an individual security is higher than Northern Trust’s Capital Market Projections, the breakeven point could be far shorter.
  • If the intent is to hold the asset for a very long period-of-time (beyond 10 years), the power of compound earnings on the entire investment will likely far exceed a higher tax rate in the future.
  • Consider the possibility that tax changes may not endure as economic and political environments shift.

State Domicile Issues

In addition to federal capital gains taxes, most states also apply a capital gain tax when assets are sold. (Currently Alaska, Florida, Nevada, New Hampshire, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Washington and Wyoming do not have a state capital gain tax.) Increased options for remote work and looming tax increases have caused some families to think more seriously about moving out of high-tax states.


  • How does your state’s capital gain rules impact your portfolio?
  • If you are considering a domicile change in the future, would it be advantageous to hold off on a sale if the new state has a more favorable tax structure related to capital gains?

Combined Capital Gains Tax Rate by State


Charitable Intent

Strategically fulfilling philanthropic goals can reduce your tax liability, as future increases to the capital gains rate is irrelevant if the asset is donated or used to fund a charitable vehicle.


  • Low-basis assets are a tax-efficient tool to make direct charitable contributions or fund a charitable vehicle, including a donor-advised fund, foundation, charitable remainder unitrust or charitable remainder annuity trust. You can contribute long-term appreciated securities directly to a charity without paying any capital gains on the fair market value.
  • Consider the timing of establishing and contributing assets to maximize the tax deduction in the year contributed.

Step-up Tax Rules at Death

Current federal tax law allows for in-estate assets to be stepped-up at death, which re-sets the tax basis of the asset to a current value. The Biden tax proposal would eliminate this provision, and cost basis would be carried over to the beneficiary of the account.


  • If the step-up rule remains in place, it is a very powerful reason to consider maintaining in-estate assets that are at a low basis, especially for those well into retirement.
  • Comparing the viability of using the step-up rules and the risk associated with continuing to hold the low-basis asset is critical.

Next Steps

Determining whether you should liquidate a low-basis asset because of concern over tax law is a complex decision. By understanding the tax implications of every potential outcome, you will be well positioned to pivot, if needed, once there is clarity on the path forward.

To understand the consequences of tax changes on your future wealth, we recommend working with an advisor to model how various scenarios could impact your goals.

Tax Policy

Plan, Don’t Predict

Understand the implications of tax changes on your wealth.


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This information is not intended to be and should not be treated as legal, investment, accounting or tax advice and is for informational purposes only. Readers, including professionals, should under no circumstances rely upon this information as a substitute for their own research or for obtaining specific legal, accounting or tax advice from their own counsel. All information discussed herein is current only as of the date appearing in this material and is subject to change at any time without notice.

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