Will You Be Paying More Tax on Similar or Less Income?

by Michael W. Blitstein, CPA 

Most taxpayers would agree that paying more tax on similar or less income does not sound appealing.  The health care reform package (the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act and the Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act of 2010) imposes a new 3.8 percent Medicare contribution tax on the net investment income of higher-income individuals. Although this tax has a wide reach, certain steps may be taken to lessen its impact.

Net investment income. Net investment income, for purposes of the new 3.8 percent Medicare tax, includes interest, dividends, annuities, royalties and rents and other gross income attributable to a passive activity. Gains from the sale of property that is not used in an active business and income from the investment of working capital are treated as investment income as well. However, the tax does not apply to nontaxable income, such as tax-exempt interest or veterans’ benefits. Further, an individual’s capital gains income – both long-term and short-term – will be subject to the tax. This includes gain from the sale of a principal residence, unless the gain is excluded from income under Code Section 121, and gains from the sale of a vacation home. Planning the sale of “big ticket items”, therefore, now often requires attention to the new 3.8 percent surtax.

The tax also applies to estates and trusts, on the lesser of undistributed net income or the excess of the trust/estate adjusted gross income (AGI) over the threshold amount ($11,200) for the highest tax bracket for trusts and estates, and to investment income they distribute. Use of family trusts and other trust-based strategies now must factor in the 3.8 percent surtax in the construction and operation of the trust.  Executors must also be aware of how the 3.8 percent surtax is applied against income on assets held by the estate rather than immediately distributed.

Deductions. Net investment income for purposes of the new 3.8 percent tax is gross income or net gain, reduced by deductions that are “properly allocable” to the income or gain. This is a key term that the Treasury Department expects to address in future guidance. For passively-managed real property, allocable expenses will still include depreciation and operating expenses. Indirect expenses such as tax preparation fees may also qualify.

For capital gain property, this formula puts a premium on keeping tabs on amounts that increase your property’s basis. It also puts the focus on investment expenses that may reduce net gains: interest on loans to purchase investments, investment counsel and advice, and fees to collect income. Other costs, such as brokers’ fees, may increase basis or reduce the amount realized from an investment.

Thresholds and impact. The tax applies to the lesser of net investment income or modified AGI above $200,000 for individuals and heads of household, $250,000 for joint filers and surviving spouses, and $125,000 for married filing separately.

The tax can have a substantial impact if you have income above the specified thresholds. Also, remember that, in addition to the tax on investment income, you may also face other tax increases that have taken effect beginning in 2013. The top marginal income tax rate is now 39.6 percent and the top tax rate on long-term capital gains has increased from 15 percent to 20 percent. Thus, the cumulative rate on capital gains for someone in the highest rate bracket has increased to 23.8 percent. Moreover, the 3.8 percent surtax’s thresholds are not indexed for inflation, so a greater number of taxpayers may be affected as time elapses.

Exceptions. Certain items and taxpayers are not subject to the 3.8 percent tax. A significant exception applies to distributions from qualified plans, 401(k) plans, tax-sheltered annuities, individual retirement accounts (IRAs), and eligible deferred compensation plans. At the present time, however, there is no exception for distributions from nonqualified deferred compensation plans, although some experts claim that not carving out such an exception was a Congressional oversight that should be rectified by an amendment to the law.

The exception for distributions from retirement plans suggests that potentially taxed investors may want to shift wages and investments to retirement plans such as 401(k) plans, 403(b) annuities, and IRAs. Increasing contributions will reduce income and may help you stay below the applicable thresholds. Business owners may want to set up retirement plans, especially 401(k) plans, if they have not yet established a plan, and should consider increasing their contributions to existing plans.

Prudent planning is necessary to create and implement efficient and effective tax strategies that will allow for goals and objectives to be met.  The new 3.8 percent Medicare contribution tax on the net investment income is no exception.  Please seek the advice from your tax professional to determine how this affects you.

CJBS, LLC is a Chicago based firm that assists its clients with a wide range of accounting and financial issues, protecting and expanding the value of mid-size companies. E-mail me at *protected email* if you have any questions about this posting or if I may be of assistance in any way.

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