The recently enacted 2012 American Taxpayer Relief Act is a sweeping tax package that includes, among many other items, permanent extension of the Bush-era tax cuts for most taxpayers, revised tax rates on ordinary and capital gain income for high-income individuals, modification of the estate tax, permanent relief from the AMT for individual taxpayers, limits on the deductions and exemptions of high-income individuals, and a host of retroactively resuscitated and extended tax breaks for individual and businesses. Here's a look at the key elements of the package:
Tax rates. For tax years beginning after 2012, the 10%, 15%, 25%, 28%, 33% and 35% tax brackets from the Bush tax cuts will remain in place and are made permanent. This means that, for most Americans, the tax rates will stay the same. However, there will be a new 39.6% rate, which will begin at the following thresholds: $400,000 (single), $425,000 (head of household), $450,000 (joint filers and qualifying widow(er)s), and $225,000 (married filing separately). These dollar amounts will be inflation-adjusted for tax years after 2013.
Estate tax. The new law prevents steep increases in estate, gift and generation-skipping transfer (GST) tax that were slated to occur for individuals dying and gifts made after 2012 by permanently keeping the exemption level at $5,000,000 (as indexed for inflation). However, the new law also permanently increases the top estate, gift, and GST rate from 35% to 40% It also continues the portability feature that allows the estate of the first spouse to die to transfer his or her unused exclusion to the surviving spouse. All changes are effective fore individuals dying and gifts made after 2012.
Capital gains and qualified dividends rates. The new law retains the 0% tax rate on long-term capital gains and qualified dividends, modifies the 15% rate, and establishes a new 20% rate. Beginning in 2013, the rate will be 0% if income falls below the 25% tax bracket; 15% if income falls at or above the 25% tax bracket but below the new 39.6% rate; and 20% if income falls in the 39.6% tax bracket. It should be noted that the 20% top rate does not include the new 3.8% surtax on investment-type income and gains for tax years beginning after 2012, which applies on investment income above $200,000 (single) and $250,000 (joint filers) in adjusted gross income. So actually, the top rate for capital gains and dividends beginning in 2013 will be 23.8% if income falls in the 39.6% tax bracket. For lower income levels, the tax will be 0%, 15%, or 18.8%.
Personal exemption phase out. Beginning in 2013, personal exemptions will be phased out (i.e., reduced) for adjusted gross income over $250,000 (single), $275,000 (head of household) and $300,000 (joint filers). Taxpayers claim exemptions for themselves, their spouses and their dependents. Last year, each exemption was worth $3,800.
Itemized deduction limitation. Beginning in 2013, itemized deductions will be limited for adjusted gross income over $250,000 (single), $275,000 (head of household) and $300,000 (joint filers).
AMT relief. The new law provides permanent alternative minimum tax (AMT) relief. Prior to the Act, the individual AMT exemption amounts for 2012 were to have been $33,750 for unmarried taxpayers, $45,000 for joint filers and $22,500 for married persons filing separately. Retroactively effective for tax years beginning after 2011, the new law permanently increases these exemption amounts to $50,600 for unmarried taxpayers, $78,750 for joint filers and $39,375 for married persons filing separately. In addition, for tax years beginning after 2012, it indexes these exemption amounts for inflation.
Tax credits for low to middle wage earners. The new law extends for five years the following items that were originally enacted as part of the 2009 stimulus package and were slated to expire at the end of 2012: (1) the American Opportunity tax credit, which provides up to $2,500 in refundable tax credits for undergraduate college education; (2) eased rules for qualifying for the refundable child credit; and (3) various earned income tax credit (EITC) changes.
Cost recovery. The new law extends increased expensing limitations and treatment of certain real property as Code Section 179 property. It also extends and modifies the bonus depreciation provisions with respect to property placed in service after Dec. 31, 2012, in tax years ending after that date.
Tax break extenders. Many of the “traditional” tax extenders are extended for two years, retroactively to 2012 and through the end of 2013. Among many others, the extended provisions include the election to take an itemized deduction for state and local general sales taxes in lieu of the itemized deduction for state and local income taxes, the $250 above-the-line deduction for certain expenses of elementary and secondary school teachers, and the research credit.
Pension provision. For transfers after Dec. 31, 2012, in tax years ending after that date, plan provision in an applicable retirement plan (which includes a qualified Roth contribution program) can allow participants to elect to transfer amounts to designated Roth accounts with the transfer being treated as a taxable qualified rollover contribution.
Payroll tax cut is no more. The 2% payroll tax cut was allowed to expire at the end of 2012.
Business extenders in the 2012 American Taxpayer Relief Act
Business tax breaks extended. The following business credits and special rules are also extended:
… The research credit is modified and retroactively extended for two years through 2013.
… The employer wage credit for employees who are active duty members of the uniformed services is retroactively extended for two years through 2013.
… The work opportunity tax credit is retroactively extended for two years through 2013.
… Exclusion from a tax-exempt organization's unrelated business taxable income (UBTI) of interest, rent, royalties, and annuities paid to it from a controlled entity is extended through Dec. 31, 2013.
… Exclusion of 100% of the gain on certain small business stock acquired before Jan. 1, 2014.
… Basis adjustment to stock of S corporations making charitable contributions of property in tax years beginning before Dec. 31, 2013.
… The reduction in S corporation recognition period for built-in gains tax is extended through 2013, with a 10-year period instead of a 5-year period.
Depreciation provisions modified and extended. The following depreciation provisions are retroactively extended by the Act:
… 15-year straight line cost recovery for qualified leasehold improvements, qualified restaurant buildings and improvements, and qualified retail improvements;
… 7-year recovery period for motorsports entertainment complexes;
… accelerated depreciation for business property on an Indian reservation;
… increased expensing limitations and treatment of certain real property as Section 179 property;
… special expensing rules for certain film and television productions; and
… the election to expense mine safety equipment.
Enhanced small business expensing (Section 179 expensing). Generally, the cost of property placed in service in a trade or business can't be deducted in the year it's placed in service if the property will be useful beyond the year. Instead, the cost is “capitalized” and depreciation deductions are allowed for most property (other than land), but are spread out over a period of years. However, to help small businesses quickly recover the cost of capital outlays, small business taxpayers can elect to write off these expenditures in the year they are made instead of recovering them through depreciation. The expense election is made available, on a tax year by tax year basis, under Section 179 of the Internal Revenue Code, and is often referred to as the “Section 179 election” or the “Code Section 179 election.” The new law makes three important changes to the Code Section 179 expense election
First, the new law provides that for tax years beginning in 2012 or 2013, a small business taxpayer will be allowed to write off up to $500,000 of capital expenditures subject to a phase out (i.e., gradual reduction) once capital expenditures exceed $2,000,000. For tax years beginning after 2013, the maximum expensing amount will drop to $25,000 and the phase out level will drop to $200,000.
Second, the new law extends the rule which treats off-the-shelf computer software as qualifying property through 2013.
Finally, the new law extends through 2013 the provision permitting a taxpayer to amend or irrevocably revoke an election for a tax year under Section 179 without IRS's consent.
Extension of additional first-year depreciation. Businesses are allowed to deduct the cost of capital expenditures over time according to depreciation schedules. In previous legislation, Congress allowed businesses to more rapidly deduct capital expenditures of most new tangible personal property, and certain other new property, by permitting an additional fist-year write-off of the cost. For qualified property acquired and placed in service after Dec. 31, 2011 and before Jan. 1, 2013 (before Jan. 1, 2014 for certain longer-lived and transportation property), the additional first-year depreciation was 50% of the cost. The new law extends this additional first-year depreciation for investments placed in service before Jan. 1, 2014 (before Jan. 1, 2015 for certain longer-lived and transportation property).
The new law also extends for one year the election to accelerate the AMT credit instead of claiming additional first-year depreciation.
The new law leaves in place the existing rules as to what kinds of property qualify for additional first-year depreciation. Generally, the property must be (1) depreciable property with a recovery period of 20 years or less; (2) water utility property; (3) computer software; or (4) qualified leasehold improvements. Also the original use of the property must commence with the taxpayer – used machinery doesn't qualify.
Anthony Caruso, CPA has practiced as a certified public accountant and investment advisor for over 30 years. Caruso and Company, P.A. is a Registered Investment Advisor offering fee based money management, tax and financial planning. Information contained above is not intended to be a recommendation to buy or sell any specific investments, or take specific tax actions and individuals should consult with their advisors for appropriate advice relating to their individual circumstances.