For the well-off, this could be the best tax day since the early 1930s: Top tax rates on ordinary income, dividends, estates, and gifts will remain at or near historically low levels for at least the next two years. That’s thanks in part to legislation passed in December 2010 by the 111th Congress and signed by President Barack Obama.
“This is clearly far and away the most generous tax situation that’s existed,” says Gregory D. Singer, a national managing director of the wealth management group at AllianceBernstein (AB) in New York. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
For the 400 U.S. taxpayers with the highest adjusted gross income, the effective federal income tax rate—what they actually pay—fell from almost 30 percent in 1995 to just under 17 percent in 2007, according to the IRS. And for the approximately 1.4 million people who make up the top 1 percent of taxpayers, the effective federal income tax rate dropped from 29 percent to 23 percent in 2008. It may seem too fantastic to be true, but the top 400 end up paying a lower rate than the next 1,399,600 or so.
That’s not just good luck. It’s often the result of hard work, as suggested by some of the strategies in the following pages. Much of the top 400’s income is from dividends and capital gains, generated by everything from appreciated real estate—yes, there is some left—to stocks and the sale of family businesses. As Warren Buffett likes to point out, since most of his income is from dividends, his tax rate is less than that of the people who clean his office.