Patricia Callahan

Erik Prince threatens ProPublica reporters after they reveal special trusts he and others exploited to avoid estate taxes

by Jeff Ernsthausen, James Bandler, Justin Elliott and Patricia Callahan

ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.

Series: The Secret IRS Files

Inside the Tax Records of the .001%

It's well known, at least among tax lawyers and accountants for the ultrawealthy: The estate tax can be easily avoided by exploiting a loophole unwittingly created by Congress three decades ago. By using special trusts, a rarefied group of Americans has taken advantage of this loophole, reducing government revenues and fueling inequality.

There is no way for the public to know who uses these special trusts aside from when they've been disclosed in lawsuits or securities filings. There's also been no way to quantify just how much in estate tax has been lost to them, though, in 2013, the lawyer who pioneered the use of the most common one — known as the grantor retained annuity trust, or GRAT — estimated they may have cost the U.S. Treasury about $100 billion over the prior 13 years.

As Congress considers cracking down on GRATs and other trusts to help fund President Joe Biden's domestic agenda, a new analysis by ProPublica based on a trove of tax information about thousands of the wealthiest Americans sheds light on just how widespread the use of special trusts to dodge the estate tax has become.

More than half of the nation's 100 richest individuals have used GRATs and other trusts to avoid estate tax, the analysis shows. Among them: former Democratic presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg; Leonard Lauder, the son of cosmetics magnate Estée Lauder; Stephen Schwarzman, a founder of the private equity firm Blackstone; Charles Koch and his late brother, David, the industrialists who have underwritten libertarian causes and funded lobbying efforts to roll back the estate tax; and Laurene Powell Jobs, the widow of Apple founder Steve Jobs. (Powell Jobs' Emerson Collective is among ProPublica's largest donors.)

More than a century ago amid soaring inequality and the rise of stratospherically wealthy families such as the Mellons and Rockefellers, Congress created the estate tax as a way to raise money and clip the fortunes of the rich at death. Lawmakers later added a gift tax as a means of stopping wealthy people from passing their fortunes on to their children and grandchildren before death. Nowadays, 99.9% of Americans never have to worry about these taxes. They only hit individuals passing more than $11.7 million, or couples giving more than $23.4 million, to their heirs. The federal government imposes a roughly 40% levy on amounts above those figures before that wealth is passed on to heirs.

For her part, Powell Jobs has decried as “dangerous for a society" the early 20th century fortunes of the Mellons, Rockefellers and others. “I'm not interested in legacy wealth buildings, and my children know that," she told The New York Times last year. “Steve wasn't interested in that. If I live long enough, it ends with me."

Nonetheless, after the death of her husband in 2011, Powell Jobs used a series of GRATs to pass on around a half a billion dollars, estate-tax-free, to her children, friends and other family, according to the tax records and interviews with her longtime attorney. By using the GRATs, she avoided at least $200 million in estate and gift taxes.

Her attorney, Larry Sonsini, said Powell Jobs did this so that her children would have cash to pay estate taxes when she dies and they inherit “nostalgic and hard assets," such as real estate, art and a yacht. (At 260 feet, Venus is among the larger pleasure ships in the world.) Without the $500 million or so passed through the trusts, he said, Powell Jobs' heirs would have to sell stock that she intends to give to charity to pay her estate tax bill.

Sonsini said Powell Jobs, whose fortune is pegged at $21 billion by Forbes, has already given billions away to charity and paid $2.5 billion in state and federal taxes between 2012 and 2020. “When you look at an estate that may be worth multiple billions, and all the rest is going to charity, and you put it in perspective, what is the problem we're worried about here?" Sonsini asked. “This is not about creating dynasty wealth for these kids."

In a written statement, Powell Jobs said she supports “reforms that make the tax code more fair. Through my work at Emerson Collective and philanthropic commitments, I have dedicated my life and assets to the pursuit of a more just and equitable society."

Others whose special trusts ProPublica identified, including Bloomberg and the Kochs, declined to comment on why they'd set up the trusts or their estate-tax implications. Representatives for Lauder didn't respond to requests to accept questions on his behalf. Schwarzman's spokesperson wrote that he is “one of the largest individual taxpayers in the country and fully complies with all tax rules."

A typical GRAT entails putting assets, like stocks, in a trust that ultimately benefits a person's heirs. The trust pays back an amount equal to what the trust's creator put in plus a modest amount of interest. But any gains on the investments above that amount flow to the heirs free of gift or estate taxes. So if a person puts $100 million worth of stock in a GRAT and the stock rises in value to $130 million, their heirs would receive about $30 million tax-free.

In 1990, Congress accidentally created GRATs when it closed another estate tax loophole that was popular at the time. The IRS challenged the maneuver but lost in court.

“I don't blame the taxpayers who are doing it," said Daniel Hemel, a professor at the University of Chicago Law School. “Congress has virtually invited them to do it. I blame Congress for creating the monster and then failing to stop the monster once it became clear how much of the tax base the GRAT monster would eat up."

Users of the trusts extend well beyond the top of the Forbes rankings, ProPublica's analysis of the confidential IRS files show. Erik Prince, founder of the military contractor Blackwater and himself heir to an auto parts fortune, used the shelter. Fashion designer Calvin Klein has used them, as have “Saturday Night Live" creator Lorne Michaels and media mogul Oprah Winfrey.

“We have paid all taxes due," a spokesperson for Winfrey said. A representative of Klein did not accept questions from ProPublica or respond to messages. A spokesman for Michaels declined to comment.

Prince also did not answer questions. “Hey if you publish private information about me I'll be sure to return the favor," he wrote. “Go ahead and fuck off."

The GRAT has become so ubiquitous in recent decades that high-end tax lawyers consider it a plain vanilla strategy. “This is an off-the-shelf solution," said Michael Kosnitzky, co-leader of the private wealth practice at law firm Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman. “Almost every wealthy person should have one."

ProPublica's tally almost certainly undercounts the number of Forbes 100 members who use shelters to avoid estate taxes. ProPublica counted only those people whose tax records or public filings explicitly mention GRATs or other trusts commonly used to dodge gift and estate taxes. But a wealthy person can call their trusts whatever they want, leaving plenty of trusts outside of ProPublica's count.

This month, the House and Senate are hammering out proposals to raise revenue to help pay for the Biden administration's plans to expand the social safety net. The legislative blueprint released by House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal, D-Mass., would defang GRATs and other trusts, which would still be legal but no longer be as useful for estate tax avoidance. If the provision makes it into law, “it would put a major dent in GRATs," said Bob Lord, an Arizona attorney who specializes in trusts and estates.

Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., has proposed going further in undercutting estate tax avoidance tools. But the prospect of any reform is uncertain, as Democrats on Capitol Hill struggle to find the votes to pass the package of spending and tax changes.

GRATs are commonly described by tax lawyers as a “heads I win, tails we tie" proposition. If the investment placed in the GRAT soars in value, that increase passes to an heir without being subject to future estate tax. If the investment doesn't go up, the wealthy person can simply try again and again until they succeed, leading many users to have multiple GRATs going at a time.

For example, Herb Simon, founder of the country's biggest shopping mall empire and owner of the Indiana Pacers, was one of the most prolific GRAT creators in records reviewed by ProPublica. Since 2000, he has hatched dozens of the trusts, often more than one a year. In an interview with The Indianapolis Star in 2017, the octogenarian Simon said, “It's always a big tax problem" for the next generation when someone dies, “but we've worked that tax problem. We won't have a problem with that."

A spokesperson for Simon didn't respond to questions for this article.

Mentions of these trusts have periodically surfaced in the press after being disclosed in securities filings, as was the case with trusts held by Facebook co-founders Mark Zuckerberg and Dustin Moskovitz and Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg. In 2013, Bloomberg News published a groundbreaking series on GRATs, mining securities filings and other records to reveal how the mega-rich, including casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and such families as Walmart's Waltons, had perfected the use of the device.

ProPublica's data shows that Michael Bloomberg, the majority owner of the company that bears his name and No. 13 on Forbes' list of the wealthiest Americans, is himself a heavy user of GRATs. Over the course of a dozen years, he repeatedly cycled pieces of his private company in and out of the trusts — often opening multiple GRATs in one year. During that time, hundreds of millions of dollars in income flowed through Bloomberg's GRATs, giving him opportunities to shield parts of his fortune for his heirs.

ProPublica described the transactions (but not the name of the person engaging in them) to Lord, the trusts and estates attorney. The GRAT is “the perfect loophole to avoid estate and gift tax in this situation," said Lord, who is also tax counsel for Americans for Tax Fairness and an advocate for estate tax reform.

When Bloomberg ran for president in 2020, he vowed to shore up the estate tax. “Owners of the biggest estates are expert at gaming the system to reduce what they owe," a campaign fact sheet for his tax plan said. Bloomberg vowed to “lower the estate-tax threshold, so that more estates are taxed," and to “shut down multiple estate-tax avoidance schemes." His fact sheet offered few details as to how he would do that, and it didn't mention GRATs.

The legislation Congress is now considering to curtail GRATs would leave open other options for estate tax avoidance, including a cousin to the GRAT known as a charitable lead annuity trust, or CLAT, which contributes to charity while passing gains from stocks and other assets on to heirs. And the legislation would grandfather in existing trusts, meaning that those who have already established trusts would be able to continue to use them to avoid paying estate taxes.

That has set off a predictable push by tax lawyers to get their clients to create tax-sheltering trusts before any new legislation takes effect.

Porter Wright, a law firm that offers estate planning services, told existing and potential clients it was “critical" to evaluate opportunities because “the window may close very soon. There are important and time sensitive issues which could substantially impact the amount of wealth you are able to transfer free of estate and gift tax to future generations."

A House bill would blow up a tool of the superwealthy to avoid taxes

This was first published by ProPublica, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.

Legislation currently making its way through Congress would take a sledgehammer to the massive individual retirement accounts built up tax-free by a select group of the ultrawealthy.

The proposal, which is part of the infrastructure and tax package advancing in the House, targets the jaw-dropping IRAs accumulated by multimillionaires and billionaires such as tech investor Peter Thiel, which were first reported by ProPublica earlier this year. Those accounts — Thiel's alone was worth $5 billion in 2019 — have allowed some super-wealthy Americans to turn their Roth IRAs, tools meant to incentivize middle-class retirement saving, into supersized tax shelters.

The proposed reform, put forward by House Ways and Means Chairman Richard Neal, D-Mass., would effectively cap the total amount someone could hold in a Roth at $20 million and compel the holders of the giant accounts to withdraw anything over that limit. Separately, individuals would have to add up the balances of their retirement accounts — including Roths, traditional IRAs, 401(k)s and 403(b)s — and every year withdraw half of any amount over $10 million. The provisions would only apply to individuals with taxable income of over $400,000 or couples making over $450,000.

The reform wouldn't affect the overwhelming majority of Americans, whose retirement savings (if they have any) are far more modest — the average Roth was worth just $39,108 at the end of 2018.

“Incentives in our tax code that help Americans save for retirement were never intended to enable a tax shelter for the ultra-wealthy," Neal said earlier this year. “We must shut down these practices."

Should the bill pass, it could have profound implications for PayPal founder Thiel, whose gargantuan Roth stunned lawmakers, spurring Neal to vow a crackdown. Thiel wouldn't owe any tax up front and no early withdrawal penalties would apply, but he'd be required to move billions out of the tax-advantaged account. And any gains on investments made with that money would no longer be sheltered from taxes, potentially creating hundreds of millions of dollars in future tax liabilities.

The great appeal of the Roth IRA is that once money is inside it, any income generated — such as capital gains from selling a stock, investment interest or dividends — is tax-free, as long as the holder waits until he or she is 59 and a half to withdraw it. (Thiel hits that mark in 2027.) In a traditional IRA, by contrast, money that's withdrawn counts as income and is taxed.

The IRA reforms are part of a slate of proposals designed to eliminate loopholes and boost tax rates on rich individuals and corporations.

Several of the changes address revelations contained in The Secret IRS Files, a series of ProPublica stories published this year that are exploring the ways the very richest Americans avoid paying taxes. Usually such efforts remain secret, but ProPublica has obtained a trove of tax records covering thousands of the country's richest people. The records reveal not only the diverse array of tax-avoidance techniques used by the rich, but also that some of the very richest have consistently found ways to avoid taking income, so they pay little or no taxes, even as their wealth multiplied to historic levels.

The current House plan falls short of President Joe Biden's more ambitious proposals to combat wealth inequality through the tax code. But experts say it would significantly increase the taxes paid by high-income Americans. Among other things, it would all but eliminate a major deduction created by President Donald Trump's 2017 tax law that, as ProPublica recently reported, showered massive tax breaks on some of the richest families in the country.

Given the stakes for a small group of wealthy and powerful Americans, it's unclear whether the IRA proposal, along with the rest of the package, will become law. It must pass the House and make it through the Senate, where it will likely need the votes of all 50 Democratic senators to pass. Capitol Hill staffers say the bill remains fluid and provisions could still be cut, added or modified.

For now, however, the proposal has alarmed those who stand to lose the most. Three tax lawyers told ProPublica that clients with giant IRAs have reached out to them, worried about the potential reforms. Already a lawyer and an accountant are offering a paid webinar that pitches strategies to help owners of large IRAs get around the proposed rules.

A spokesman for Thiel didn't respond to a request for comment.

The tax proposals have drawn opposition from Republicans on Capitol Hill. “This is very bad news for the U.S. economy," said Ways and Means Committee ranking member Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas, in an interview this week.

A budget analyst at the anti-tax Heritage Foundation specifically criticized the IRA reform proposals as “stifling retirement savings and decreasing the economy-wide investment in future productivity."

Neal announced his plans to curb the size of mega IRAs in July following ProPublica's story revealing how Thiel and other billionaires had amassed giant retirement accounts using techniques largely unavailable to most taxpayers. Other wealthy investors with giant retirement accounts included financier Michael Milken, Warren Buffett and executives from investment giant Bain Capital.

Neal joined his Senate counterpart, Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who had been pushing for reform of mega IRAs for years without much support from his peers.

With a multibillion-dollar tax-free account on the line, a wealthy investor might try to keep his income below the $400,000 threshold set by the proposal. In Thiel's case, it's not clear if that would be possible, given that he's long reported tens of millions of dollars on his tax returns from capital gains, interest and dividends on investments he holds outside of his Roth IRA. And even if he has to withdraw billions from his Roth, he will never have to pay taxes on years of growth inside the account.

ProPublica has previously reported that several billionaires have had very little taxable income in certain years, including Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk. Musk did not respond to questions for that story and Bezos' representatives would not designate someone to accept questions related to that story.

The proposal would also add restrictions in areas that congressional investigators have said are ripe for abuse by the wealthy: The owners of IRAs would be barred from using the accounts to either purchase certain nonpublic investments or buy stakes in companies in which they are an officer.

Thiel launched his Roth IRA by purchasing so-called founder's shares of PayPal in 1999 when he was chairman and CEO of the company, according to tax records and a financial statement Thiel included in his application for residency in New Zealand. Securities and Exchange Commission records show he bought 1.7 million shares for $1,700, or a tenth of a penny per share. (The maximum contribution to a Roth that year was $2,000.) PayPal later told the SEC the shares were sold “below market value."

The practice has become popular among the founders of Silicon Valley companies, who tuck shares of their startups into IRAs, often after buying them at bargain prices. This can sidestep IRA contribution limits and generate massive tax-free growth if the value of their companies explodes.

The proposal would also shut down the so-called backdoor Roth. ProPublica found that billionaires like Buffett had taken advantage of a maneuver, known as a conversion, that allows the wealthy to sidestep existing income caps to create a Roth IRA. In a conversion, the owner of a traditional IRA can transform it into a Roth by paying one-time tax on the money. Once the account is converted into a Roth, no additional income taxes are ever due. The new provision would bar conversions for individuals with income over $400,000, though the ban would not go into effect until 2031 for budgetary reasons. (Buffett previously didn't respond to questions about his IRA.)

The proposal also has implications for the holders of giant traditional IRAs, who could suddenly owe a hefty tax bill. Money withdrawn from a traditional IRA counts as taxable income. Milken, the 1980s junk bond king who went to prison for fraud and was later pardoned by Trump, had traditional IRAs valued at $509 million at the end of 2018, according to tax records. If the law passed, Milken could face a tax bill of roughly $100 million, depending on the current size of his account. A spokesperson for Milken declined to comment.

Separately, another part of the bill would tackle the generous business income deductions granted by Trump's 2017 tax law.

As ProPublica previously reported, the drafting of the deduction was marked by last-minute changes and a rush of lobbying dollars from corporations and the superrich. The result of its passage, confidential tax records show, was a windfall for billionaires such as media mogul Michael Bloomberg, packaging tycoons Dick and Liz Uihlein, and the Bechtel family, owners of a global engineering and construction firm.

Bloomberg received a deduction of roughly $183 million in 2018 alone as a result of the provision, while the Uihleins netted around $118 million.

Under the House proposal, the deduction would be capped at $400,000 for an individual and $500,000 for a couple, virtually wiping it out for the very rich. If such a cap had been in place in 2018, for example, the Uihleins would have gotten a deduction worth just $500,000 instead of $118 million. A competing Senate proposal unveiled by Wyden in July would go even further. A spokesperson for the Uihleins declined to comment on the proposed reforms.

On a broader level, the House plan would spell a significant tax hike on Americans earning more than $400,000, raising their individual income tax rates as well as bumping up the corporate tax rate, the first such hikes in a decade.

But despite the proposal's ambition, critics say it misses a rare opportunity to capture the massive untaxed wealth of some of the richest individuals in history, including Bezos and Musk, who have often found ways to keep their income low.

As ProPublica reported, they and other billionaires have managed to pay little to no taxes in the past. Some have done so by pursuing the so-called buy, borrow, die strategy. By holding on to his Tesla stock but borrowing money to finance his lifestyle, Musk, for example, can avoid income that is taxable under current law. If he sticks to this strategy till death, the income tax liability on his fortune will evaporate for his heirs.

Some Democrats and policymakers had aspired to even bolder tax code changes that would have targeted the stratospheric increases in the ultrawealthy's riches. One idea, championed by Sens. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., would be to levy a so-called wealth tax on billionaires' overall holdings. Another, pushed by Wyden, would tax the annual gains billionaires logged, even if they hadn't sold the assets. Both ideas foundered, with concerted opposition from billionaires and skittishness from Democratic centrists. Some critics point out that wealth taxes have often failed in other countries. And many policymakers believe it would be too logistically difficult to measure assets properly and enforce such a sweeping rule on gains.

Campaign to rein in mega IRA tax shelters gains steam in Congress

ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.

Series: The Secret IRS Files

Inside the Tax Records of the .001%

Two members of Congress who have long been responsible for shaping federal laws on retirement savings are considering major reforms after ProPublica exposed how the ultrawealthy are turning retirement accounts into gargantuan tax shelters.

Rep. Richard Neal, the Massachusetts Democrat who chairs the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, told ProPublica that he has directed the committee to draft a bill that “will stop IRAs from being exploited."

The committee is considering “limiting the total amount of money that can be saved in tax-preferred retirement accounts," Neal said in a written statement.

“Incentives in our tax code that help Americans save for retirement were never intended to enable a tax shelter for the ultra-wealthy," Neal said. “We must shut down these practices."

In addition, Sen. Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat who has co-authored a series of changes to retirement savings laws in the past decade, is also in favor of reforms that his spokesperson said would “prevent the type of massive abuses exemplified by the ultra-wealthy."

But provisions lurking deep in unrelated legislation currently wending its way through Congress could undermine those efforts.

In its June 24 story, ProPublica detailed that one technique investors have used to sock hundreds of millions of dollars — even billions — away in their IRAs is to fill the accounts with bargain-basement shares in companies that are not publicly traded, so they have no clear valuation. Then, when the companies go public or are sold, their accounts explode in value — with all of the gains tax-free.

Cardin's spokesperson told ProPublica that the senator now supports banning such transactions, which would be one of the biggest reforms in decades to the rules governing the accounts. The Internal Revenue Service recommended a similar change more than a decade ago. Congressional investigators wrote that an IRS team in 2009 had suggested “limiting the types of investments IRAs can make to publicly traded or otherwise marketable securities with a readily ascertainable fair market value."

Cardin is “considering reforms, such as banning the use of IRAs to purchase nonpublic investments," calling it “a good starting point while protecting IRAs for every day Americans to save for their retirement," his spokesperson wrote in an email.

The growing interest in changing the system gives momentum to the plans of Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, chair of the Senate Finance Committee, who last month declared that he was eyeing a similar crackdown on giant IRAs.

Wyden's move came after ProPublica detailed how the Roth IRA, a ho-hum retirement account designed to help the middle class save for retirement, had been hijacked by the ultrawealthy, who used it to create gigantic onshore tax shelters. Tax records obtained by ProPublica revealed that Peter Thiel, a co-founder of PayPal and an early investor in Facebook, had a Roth IRA worth $5 billion as of 2019. As long as Thiel waits until he is six months shy of his 60th birthday, he will be able to withdraw his fortune tax-free.

Thiel made an end run around the strict limit on what can be put into a Roth IRA by purchasing so-called founders' shares of PayPal in 1999 when he was chairman and CEO of that company, according to tax records and a financial statement Thiel included in his application for citizenship in New Zealand. Securities and Exchange Commission records show Thiel bought 1.7 million shares for $1,700 — a price of a tenth of a penny per share. PayPal later told the SEC that the shares were among those sold at “below fair value."

When PayPal took off and Thiel's shares ballooned in value, he sold them and used the proceeds — still within his Roth — to invest in other startups, including Facebook, long before they went public, according to court records and Thiel's financial statement filed in New Zealand. He never had to make another contribution to his Roth again. The account's stratospheric growth all stemmed from a private stock deal available only to a handful of people.

This is the type of nonpublic IRA investment that Cardin is considering banning. A spokesperson for Thiel did not respond to requests for comment.

But this new appetite for reining in the accounts may be too late to slow contrary bipartisan legislation already rolling through Congress. Buried deep inside two complex and sweeping bills — each more than 140 pages long — are provisions that could make it harder for the IRS to crack down on the ultrawealthy who dodge tax rules.

Those bills, paradoxically, are co-sponsored by Cardin and Neal, two of the lawmakers who are now calling for reining in giant retirement accounts.

The House and Senate bills were introduced before ProPublica launched its ongoing series last month exposing how the country's richest citizens sidestep the nation's income tax system. ProPublica has obtained IRS tax return data on thousands of the wealthiest people in the U.S., covering more than 15 years, allowing it to conduct an unprecedented examination of how the ultrawealthy employ tricks to avoid taxes in ways that most Americans cannot.

The bills are being pitched as helping ordinary Americans save for retirement, including automatic enrollment of workers in employer-sponsored retirement plans. But they also include perks for retirement and financial industries, such as relaxing certain rules in ways that are seen as a boon for insurers.

Deciphering the handouts is nearly impossible without a background in the intricacies of retirement plan tax laws and the help of experts. The bills hide critical changes in language most laypeople would never understand. For instance, a key piece of the Senate bill reads, “Paragraph (2) of subsection (e) of section 408 is repealed." But the scope of that change only makes sense when layered with this: “Section 4975(c)(3) is amended by striking 'the account ceases to be an individual retirement account by reason of the application of section 408(e)(2)(A) or if'."

ProPublica had to reverse-engineer the meaning of that series of numbers and letters to determine that it would take away one of the most potent weapons in the IRS' arsenal: the ability to strip an entire IRA of its tax-favored status.

Complicated IRS and Department of Labor rules prohibit IRA investments that involve conflicts of interest or self-dealing. That can be a particular concern with nontraditional IRA investments, such as purchases of real estate or of shares of companies that are not publicly traded. Under the current law, if the IRS determines that a retirement account has engaged in a prohibited transaction, the agency can blow up the entire account — an event that Warren Baker, a tax attorney whose practice focuses on IRAs, likens to “Armageddon." The whole account then ceases to be an IRA, and the owner has to pay income taxes on it.

The two bills propose defusing that bomb. In the House bill, the tax benefits would only be stripped from the part of the account involved in the forbidden transaction. The Senate bill would loosen the rules even more, applying a 15% excise tax on the part of the account involved in the prohibited transaction without blowing up the account. A spokesperson for Cardin said, “The penalty jumps to 100% if not corrected in a timely manner."

Still, someone who violates the rules suddenly would have a “massive long-term upside benefit" of tax-free growth, Baker said, while “your downside risk is a penalty that is smaller than the capital gains rates," the federal tax on the income that's generated when stocks or other assets are sold.

Bob Lord, a tax attorney and tax counsel to Americans for Tax Fairness, said he has represented clients who settled Roth IRA cases because the threat of losing the tax benefits of their entire accounts was “leverage the IRS had." He was stunned when he read the bills and saw that power stripped from the IRS.

“These changes will lead to more aggressive transactions that lodge greater wealth in Roth IRAs, with less risk if the IRS audits," Lord said.

The proposed Senate bill, experts say, makes another concession to IRA owners who might be tempted to dodge the rules. Under current law, an IRA account holder who violates rules is never totally in the clear. That's because the current statute of limitations for violations is a bit of a gray area, experts say. The IRS, “could virtually go back indefinitely," said Jeffrey Levine, a CPA and chief planning officer at Buckingham Wealth Partners.

The Senate bill proposes stopping the clock at three years. Yet, it can take more than three years for some nontraditional investments to balloon. If the IRS were to discover something amiss, under the bill's proposed statute of limitations it would be too late to act.

“For the little guy this makes all the sense in the world," Levine said. But for the ultrawealthy with huge accounts and squadrons of lawyers, he said, the changes could incentivize bad behavior. “Someone with all the resources in the world could say, 'I'll do this now that my risk-reward calculation is different and I'm looking at getting through three years and then I'm kind of home free.' That, you know, is a real boon for those who want to take advantage of the system."

The House bill is co-sponsored by Neal and Rep. Kevin Brady, a Texas Republican, and the Senate bill is co-sponsored by Cardin and Sen. Rob Portman, an Ohio Republican.

A spokesperson for Portman defended the legislation, which she said was “borne out of contact from our constituents — including innocent middle class savers who had their retirements wrecked by innocent and minor errors." ProPublica asked aides to Portman and Cardin for examples, but neither provided any. A Cardin spokesperson wrote in an email that “there usually is not litigation when this happens, and non-public examples are confidential taxpayer information."

In a joint statement, the offices of Portman and Cardin defended the Senate bill, saying it would help small businesses offer 401(k) retirement plans, expand access to savings for low-income Americans and “allow people who have saved too little to set more aside for retirement." The new legislation, they added, included measures to prevent Americans from inadvertently losing their IRAs while “implementing safeguards to prevent abuse."

Brady's communications director asked for questions in writing, then did not respond.

A staffer with Neal's Ways and Means Committee said the House bill had broad support and touted many provisions, including the automatic enrollment of employees in retirement plans, a national lost-and-found to locate retirement plans from prior jobs and a requirement that employers let certain long-term, part-time workers enroll in 401(k) plans.

The House bill, she noted, doesn't repeal the prohibited transaction rules; it limits the impact to the inappropriate purchase. She described Neal as “very committed to maintaining these important rules and believes that full sanctions should apply when violated."

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