Most people who were born on January 17, 1922, have long since passed away. Of those who are still alive, few are still working in any capacity. And only one of them is still going strong after 80 years in show business. Her name is Betty White. And last week, the actress, animal rights activist, and vodka fan, who considers herself “the luckiest old broad on two feet,” celebrated her 98th birthday. And when you’re blessed to enjoy 98 healthy years on the planet, you navigate a lot of tax rules over that time.
When Betty was born in 1922, the country was just returning to “normalcy” after World War I. The Revenue Act of 1922 had just dropped the top rate from 73% to 58% on income over $200,000 (about $3 million in today’s dollars). Oil titans and robber barons were the ones paying those top rates, not athletes or entertainers.
Betty launched her career just months after graduating from high school in 1939, singing on an experimental TV channel. By then, we had lifted ourselves out of the worst of the Great Depression. There were 33 tax brackets, starting at 4% on the first $4,000. The top rate was a robust 79%; however, it didn’t kick in until your income topped $5 million (just north of $90 million today). Most people earning up to the equivalent of about $900,000 actually paid less than they do now.
When World War II arrived, Betty joined the American Women’s Volunteer Services and entertained troops before they shipped off. In 1949 she was back on TV, and in 1951 won her first Emmy nomination. (She lost to Gertrude Berg . . . yes, that Gertrude Berg.) By that point, the war and recovery had forced taxes considerably higher, with a 91% top rate on incomes over $200,000 ($2 million today).
After spending most of the 60s haunting game show panels, in 1973 Betty joined the Mary Tyler Moore Shows as “man-hungry” Sue Ann Nivens. She called the role the highlight of her career and won two more Emmys. The top tax rate had fallen to “just” 70%, kicking in on income over $200,000 ($1,150,000 today). But the average six-figure earner paid 29-33%, taking advantage of tax-free municipal bonds, preferential treatment for capital gains, and a whole new universe of tax shelters in real estate, oil & gas, cattle farming, and locomotive leasing. (Sound familiar?)
In 1985, Betty scored her second smash hit as Rose Nylund — “not the brightest nickel in the drawer” — on The Golden Girls. While she was racking up eight Emmy nominations for her work, Washington was working in a genuinely bipartisan way to reform what everyone admitted had become an out-of-control tax system. The result was the Tax Reform Act of 1986, which still frames how we pay. (If you’re a millennial, try Googling the word “bipartisan” — seriously, it’ll blow your mind.)
In 2010, the 88-year-old Betty appeared with the 89-year-old Abe Vigoda in a classic Snickers ad. Betty credits that commercial for yet another career reboot. She certainly doesn’t need the money — her net worth has been estimated at $75 million. She’s focused now on animal rights, and once told Ad Age magazine, “The whole reason I work so much is so I can pay for all those animals. So, to have all these opportunities is just wonderful.” Clearly her charitable deductions are most important now!
You may not live to be as old as Betty White or win as many Emmys. But your life, your finances, and your taxes will evolve over time just like hers. That’s where we come in, to help you navigate those changes with as much grace and good humor as Betty. Here’s to 98!