Ah, it’s March again, and the tax madness musters anew. For those who yearn to file by April 17th, the pressure begins to build. Before the mad dash takes off in earnest in just a few short weeks, you may want to brush up on the big disruptions to the tax code wrought by last year’s “tax reform.”
You’ll be dealing with some of the biggest changes in a generation, so be warned. Besides fundamental restructuring like the elimination of exemptions, there are more changes this year than have been seen in quite some time. All the new rules will add mightily to the confusion, so best get a jump on it if you’ve not already begun. Worse, many old and cherished tax tactics have gone by the wayside, and if you’re not careful the new tax “cuts” may wind up biting your wealth instead of reducing your taxes. Tax strategy, always important to wealth-maximizers, should be especially scrutinized this year.
Before jumping in, it is useful to remember that US tax policy and law is in constant flux, a seething, changing thing driven by the complex and fickle political wind. The battlefield is ever-shifting, and readers are advised to keep a sharp and frequent lookout to chart the safest path through the fire and carnage. Like so many changes before it, the new tax reform is short lived, with many provisions “sunsetting” – expiring – after 2025, if they last that long. The future Congresses and President may extend them, or cancel them. Taxes may go up or down or stay the same. Tax policy breeds many unintended consequences, and change creates new winners and losers.
For now, we will mostly address income taxes since the urgency of these is probably why you are reading this article, but please be attentive to our upcoming thoughts on the much more insidious estate tax, which will be covered in another piece.
Here are some highlights of the big changes:
- Estate Tax. The estate tax exemption has been doubled to $11,180,000 per individual – almost $22.4M per married couple – which should make for far fewer taxable estates. Just remember that this may change at the whim of the next government, and that in any event the exemptions revert to the old level in 2026.
- Employee Business Expenses and Other Miscellaneous Deductions: W2 employees – as opposed to independent contractors or business owners – have always had the short end of the stick when it comes to business write-offs, where the small range of allowable deductions got whittled down to almost nothing by the arithmetic on the Schedule A. Well, the short stick’s now been whittled down to nothing, and employees no longer have any write off opportunities. Ditto for moving expenses, brokerage, IRA and investment advisory fees, new alimony, and most casualty losses. If these items apply to you, you could see significant tax increases. Where possible, using or setting up an owned business to expense applicable items could offer substantial relief.
- Exemptions and Itemized Deductions: The standard deduction has been effectively doubled, changing the calculus of whether to itemize things like charitable contributions, home interest, and so on. Complicating the calculus: there are no more personal exemptions. This is a sea change! Exemptions were basically a “bonus” deduction based on the size of the taxpayer’s eligible family, and available regardless of whether you itemized other deductions or just took the standard deduction. Depending on your situation, this can dramatically blunt the value of the expanded standard deduction. The limits for charitable deductions are slightly expanded. The so-called SALT for State and Local Taxes deduction is curtailed, with the sum of income, real estate, and sales taxes capped at $10,000. Business owners can continue to deduct these items if they qualify as business use. Finally, the nasty stealth tax on deductions – where an arithmetic shell game of “now you see ‘em, now you don’t” eliminated deductions or whittled them way down for higher-income folks, effectively boosting their tax rate – is gone under the new tax.
- Capital Gains Tax Rates stay the same at 0%, 15%, and 20%, plus (not to pick any NIITs), if applicable, the 3.8% Obama-era Net Investment Income Tax kicker. Remember that Capital Gains rates are determined by ordinary income rates – in other words, having sufficient business, interest, employment, or other “regular” income will drive the effective capital gains rate higher. According to financial commentator Michael Kitces, “because capital gains income stacks on top of ordinary income, even just increasing ordinary income can effectively crowd out room for preferential long-term capital gains rates. In fact, the interrelationship between ordinary income and long-term capital gains creates a form of “capital gains bump zone” – where the marginal tax rate on ordinary income can end out being substantially higher than the household’s tax bracket alone, because additional income is both subject to ordinary tax brackets and drives up the taxation of long-term capital gains (or qualified dividends) in the process.*”
That’s it for now. In Part II we will dwell a bit more on estate and gift taxes, look at changes in the so-called kiddie tax, review an important change on IRA ROTH conversions, and look at the many huge changes affecting business owners. Until then, as Franklin didn’t say, but should have: “taxes saved is wealth earned!”