In a climate of growing income inequality, where the rich are amassing wealth at unprecedented levels while record numbers of everyday citizens live paycheck to paycheck, it may not seem like ultra-high-net-worth individuals (UHNWIs) have much to worry about. After all, a UHNWI is defined as a person with investable assets in excess of $30 million. While it takes a special kind of financial irresponsibility for a person with that kind of wealth to develop the kinds of money troubles that plague the rest of society, such as bankruptcy, foreclosure or inability to make rent, the ultra-wealthy deal with their own unique brand of financial problems.
Many argue the financial problems plaguing UHNWIs are ones most of the world would love to have, kind of like being too good-looking, too smart or having too many dates to choose from on a Saturday night. These challenges include changing tax codes, estate planning, sustaining their lifestyles during retirement and protecting their current levels of wealth. While it may sound crazy to someone working an average job for average pay, a UHNWI worth $50 million is often scared to death of descending to simple millionaire status.
Changing Tax Codes
Throughout the 21st century, the tax treatment of the super-wealthy has served as a political football. Few issues in recent memory have more starkly divided politicians and the general public along ideological lines. On one side, supply-side adherents channel Ronald Reagan, proclaiming that keeping taxes low for the affluent frees up money for them to invest in ways that create jobs and grow the economy for everyone else. This line of thinking, known as trickle-down economics, advocates cutting taxes for the rich not solely for the benefit of the rich but also because their prosperity then cascades down to the rest of society.
Then there is the other side, which feels the middle class and working poor shoulder too much of the tax burden, and that UHNWIs exploit loopholes and creative accounting practices to pay far less than their fair share. Proponents of higher taxes on the wealthy point specifically to long-term capital gains, the method by which many wealthy people amass their fortunes. As of 2015, long-term capital gains are taxed at no higher than 20%.
Even ordinary income tax rates for the extremely wealthy are historically low as of 2015. The top tax bracket stands at 39.6%, but as recently as 1980, it was 70%. In 1963, the top tax bracket was a staggering 90%. Politicians and aspiring politicians abound who would love to see a return to these high rates on the extremely wealthy. With polarization in politics at an all-time high, UHNWIs live with constant anxiety of a power shift toward those less friendly to their interests.
Ultra-high-net-worth individuals worry about sustaining their riches so they can continue to fund their own lifestyles, but additionally, when they are no longer around, most of them want to retain their riches to pass to their heirs. Ideally, they want the government to appropriate as little as possible of this money before it is bequeathed to the next generation.
As of 2015, the estate tax only applies to the extremely wealthy. The first $5.43 million of an estate is exempt from taxation. However, UHNWIs, by definition, possess several multiples of this number, which means they need to be cognizant of tax implications when estate planning. The estate tax rate, as of 2015, for any value beyond $5.43 million is 40%, so a UHNWI stands to lose a lot of net worth in the passing of his estate. Moreover, many states have their own estate taxes, or as they are called in some states, inheritance taxes, which are imposed on top of the federal estate tax.
UHNWIs use many schemes to mitigate the effects of the estate tax. These tactics include leaving their estates to surviving spouses, in which case they are exempt from taxation; making use of charitable contributions; and setting up a variety of trust accounts, which can be used to get around the estate tax.
Sustaining Lifestyle During Retirement
For UHNWIs who became rich from investing, little distinction exists between working years and retirement years. These individuals are likely to continue doing what has worked for them, with age being an irrelevant factor.
However, those who became UHNWIs by working, including CEOs and other highly paid professionals, sometimes face a loss of income when they decide to call it quits. While having $30 million or more should be enough to live any kind of retirement lifestyle you want, some UHNWIs do a poor job managing their money and have to scale back at some point. One problem that comes up at times with UHNWIs is illiquidity; they have millions of dollars, but most or all of it is tied up in land, real estate and other assets they cannot easily convert to cash. Other UHNWIs take too many risks with their money, and while they do not feel the effects so much when they still have piles of money coming in, they feel it when they retire and a big loss is not so easily replenished.
Protecting Their Wealth
During the Great Recession of 2007-2009, many UHNWIs became merely high-net-worth individuals (HNWIs), meaning individuals with more than $1 million in investable assets but less than $30 million. For a truly unlucky few, their wealth hemorrhaging went beyond losing the “ultra” label; they lost everything.
Most UHNWIs do not have their money sitting around in certificates of deposit (CDs), money market accounts, cash value life insurance and other so-called safe investments that provide tepid returns at best. One of the reasons they are so wealthy is they make use of aggressive investment vehicles that consistently beat the market. In market matters, however, reward and risk often move in lockstep. When a bear market or recession hits, the high-growth investments that helped UHNWIs get rich are frequently the first to take a precipitous dive. For this reason, UHNWIs who rely on the markets for income often live with the constant stress of another looming crash.