The only way that the American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012 provides relief to high income taxpayers is by ending uncertainty. The wait is over and we now know what we can for tax planning; guessing based on the last news from Washington is over.
So, what planning can you do? Start with reviewing all the changes below. Then consider how they apply to you and what you can affect to bear less of a tax burden in this or future years – see the “action” items below in each section.
**Social Security:** The payroll tax holiday ended so that the Social Security tax rates have returned to 6.2% (up from 4.2%) for 2013 wages up to the taxable wage limit of $113,700.
**Action:** //not much to do on this one, because it ends a set maximum each year, unlike the Medicare tax below.//
**Health insurance funding via additional Medicare tax:** The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act adds a .9% tax applies to single individuals earning over $200,000 and married couples who earn over $250,000 and file jointly. This raises the rate from 1.45%, will rise to 2.35%. However, employers must withhold the Additional Medicare Tax from **all** workers, regardless of marital status, from wages exceeding $200,000.
Action: bunch income in one year (defer/accelerate if you can get below the range – see rates below).
**New Ordinary Income Tax Rate:**
For most individuals, the federal income tax rates for 2013 will be the same as last year: 10%, 15%, 25%, 28%, 33%, and 35%. However, the maximum rate for higher-income folks increases to 39.6% (up from 35%). This change only affects singles with adjusted gross income (AGI) above $400,000, married joint-filing couples with income above $450,000, heads of households with income above $425,000, and married individuals who file separate returns with income above $225,000.
**Action:** //bunch income into one year (defer/accelerate if you can get below the range – especially if you coordinate earned income with net realized gains). The goal is to shift income (and deductions, as discussed below) from one year to another so that the total tax for both years is less. This is easier for self-employed or owners of private companies, as they can shift income within reasonable limits. Also, with large portfolios, there is some ability to put net gains in one year rather than another. As stated below, you can move all dividend and taxable interest paying investments into qualified plans, keeping your asset allocation but lessening the tax burden.//
**New Long-Term Gains and Dividends Tax Rate:**
The tax rates on long-term capital gains and dividends are the same as last year for most taxpayers. However, the rate goes to 20% (up from 15%) for singles with AGI above $400,000, married joint-filing couples with income above $450,000, heads of households with AGI above $425,000, and married individuals who file separate returns with AGI above $225,000. When you add in the new 3.8% Medicare surtax, you get a combined rate of 23.8% on long-term gains and dividends.
**Action:** //Once again, shift net gains into one year and put dividend paying investments in qualified plans.//
**Stealth rate increases:**
**Personal and Dependent Exemption Deduction Phase-Out:** The 2009 phase-out rule for personal and dependent exemption deductions has been restored, so your personal and dependent exemption write-offs are reduced if not even completely eliminated. This phase-out starts at the following AGI thresholds: $250,000 for single filers, $300,000 for married joint-filing couples, $275,000 for heads of households, and $150,000 for married individuals who file separate returns.
**Itemized Deduction Phase-Out:** As above, the 2009 phase-out rule for itemized deductions has been restored, so you can potentially lose up to 80% of your write-offs for mortgage interest, state and local income and property taxes, and charitable contributions if your AGI exceeds the applicable threshold: $250,000 for single filers, $300,000 for married joint-filing couples, $275,000 for heads of households, or $150,000 for married individuals who file separate returns. The itemized deductions are reduced by 3% of the amount by which your AGI exceeds the threshold, up to a maximum of 80% of the total affected deductions.
**Medical Expenses:** The floor above which medical expenses can be deducted goes from 7.5% to 10%.
**Action:** //for each of these, try to move deductions into one year, and bunch income to another, so that the total tax for both years is less.//
**Alternative Minimum Tax Help**
The AMT “patch”, which prevented millions having this add-on tax, has higher exemptions and allows various personal tax credits. The new law makes the patch permanent, starting with 2012. The change will keep about 30 million households out of the AMT.
**Action:** you can identify which AMT items affect you and bunch them into one year, to save taxes on another.
//**Gift and Estate Tax Rules Made Permanent**//
For 2013 and beyond, the new law permanently installs a unified federal estate and gift tax exemption of $5 million (adjusted annually for inflation, making it $5,250,000 for 2013) and a 40% maximum tax rate (up from last year’s 35% rate). Also, you can still leave your unused estate and gift tax exemption to your surviving spouse (the “portable exemption”).
**Action:** //review your assets to see if you can gift any now, even if in a trust for future ownership change, and also check to see if any such gifts help on state estate taxes. You may want to consider a second-to-die policy in an irrevocable trust, if your assets will exceed the credits after gifts.//
**Action:** //see if any apply, then shift income and deductions so you benefit from them.//
**American Opportunity Higher Education Tax Credit Extended:** The American Opportunity credit, providing up to $2,500 for up to four years of undergraduate education, was extended through 2017.
**Higher Education Tuition Deduction Extended:** While this deduction was set to expire at the end of 2011, the new law restores it for 2012 and 2013, allowing for as much as $4,000 or $2,000 for higher-income folks.
Option to Deduct State and Local Sales Taxes Extended*: This option also expired in 2011 but is restored for 2012 and 2013, giving taxpayers with little or no state income taxes the option to claim an itemized deduction for state and local sales taxes.
**Charitable Donations from IRAs Extended:** This option also expired in 2011 but is restored for 2012 and 2013, allowing IRA owners who had reach age 70½ to make charitable donations of up to $100,000 directly out of their IRAs. The donations count as IRA required minimum distributions.
For 2012, you can still act if you do so this month – it will be treated as a December 2012 transaction.
**$250 Deduction for K-12 Educators’ Expenses Extended:** Yet another deduction that expired in 2011 is restored for 2012 and 2013, allowing teachers and other K-12 educators a $250 “above the line deduction” for school-related expenses that they paid.
**$500 Energy-Efficient Home Improvement Credit Extended:** Finally, another credit that expired in 2011 is restored for 2012 and 2013, allowing taxpayers could claim a tax credit of up to $500 for certain energy-saving improvements to a principal residence.