Two weeks ago, few Americans had heard of Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling. Now, thanks to Sterling’s big mouth, we’re all talking about him. As President Barack Obama said, “when ignorant folks want to advertise their ignorance you don’t really have to do anything, you just let them talk. And that’s what happened here.”
National Basketball Association commissioner Adam Silver wasted no time banning Sterling from the league for the rest of life. (No communication with players, coaches, or staff. No practices or games. No owner meetings at cushy resorts or other league activities of any kind.) He announced he would urge the league’s Board of Governors to force Sterling to sell the team. And he fined Sterling the maximum $2.5 million allowed by the league constitution.
At first glance, $2.5 million sounds like a mere technical foul for a guy with Sterling’s wealth. (Forbes estimates his total net worth at $1.8 billion.) But the real cost of Sterling’s words may turn out to be $100 million or more. Where does that extra penalty come from? Thank our friends at the IRS, of course.
Sterling bought the team in 1981 for just $12.5 million. According to the Wall Street Journal, it’s worth $700 million or more today. We’ll assume for the purposes of this discussion that Sterling could sell it for $700 million. If Sterling holds onto the team until his death, his estate will owe Uncle Sam 40% on the $700 million. The $280 million tax will leave his heirs with just $420 million. That’s an big bite, bite, of course. But the heirs will take the team with a “stepped-up basis” equal to the full $700 million. In other words, they avoid tax on the full difference between the $12.5 million purchase and the $700 million value.
Now let’s say Sterling’s fellow NBA owners force him to sell. Sterling will owe 20% federal capital gain tax on his $687.5 million gain (the $700 million selling price minus his $12.5 million “basis.”) He’ll owe the new 3.8% “unearned income Medicare contribution” on the same amount. And, as a California resident, he’ll owe the Golden State another 13.3%. The California tax is deductible from his federal income. Still, all told, he’ll pay in the neighborhood of $230 million on his gain. Talk about fouling out! Those tax hits will leave Sterling with just $468 out of the team’s $700 million. At his death, estate taxes will take another $187.2 million, leaving his heirs with just $280.8 million. That’s nearly $140 million less than if he had held the team until his death.
As bad as $140 million sounds, the real penalty could climb even higher. The team’s television contract expires after the 2015-16 season, which could mean hundreds of millions in new revenue from a more lucrative replacement contract. Plus, celebrities from NBA great Magic Johnson to rapper-entrepreneur Sean “Diddy” Combs, and even Oprah Winfrey have announced interest in buying the team. That sort of financial jump shot could push the price to well over a billion dollars.
Selling appreciated assets like stocks, mutual funds, real estate, or a business can feel like striking it rich. But you can’t forget that your friends at the IRS are waiting to share your good fortune, too. That’s why it’s crucial to have a plan to minimize your tax when you sell. And that, of course, is where we come in. So call Laura M. Mikeworth CPA before you sell, and remember, it’s what you keep that counts.
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