Alternative Minimum Tax

There was talk of repealing the individual alternative minimum tax (AMT) as part of last year’s tax reform legislation. A repeal wasn’t included in the final version of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA), but the TCJA will reduce the number of taxpayers subject to the AMT.

Now is a good time to familiarize yourself with the changes, assess your AMT risk and see if there are any steps you can take during the last several months of the year to avoid the AMT, or at least minimize any negative impact.

Alternative Minimum Tax vs. Regular Tax
The top AMT rate is 28%, compared to the top regular ordinary-income tax rate of 37%. But the AMT rate typically applies to a higher taxable income base and will result in a larger tax bill if you’re subject to it.

The TCJA reduced the number of taxpayers who’ll likely be subject to the AMT in part by increasing the AMT exemption and the income phaseout ranges for the exemption:

  • For 2018, the exemption is $70,300 for singles and heads of households (up from $54,300 for 2017), and $109,400 for married couples filing jointly (up from $84,500 for 2017).
  • The 2018 phaseout ranges are $500,000–$781,200 for singles and heads of households (up from $120,700–$337,900 for 2017) and $1,000,000–$1,437,600 for joint filers (up from $160,900–$498,900 for 2017).

You’ll be subject to the AMT if your AMT liability is greater than your regular tax liability.

Alternative Minimum Tax Triggers
In the past, common triggers of the AMT were differences between deductions allowed for regular tax purposes and AMT purposes. Some popular deductions aren’t allowed under the AMT.

New limits on some of these deductions for regular tax purposes, such as on state and local income and property tax deductions, mean they’re less likely to trigger the AMT. And certain deductions not allowed for AMT purposes are now not allowed for regular tax purposes either, such as miscellaneous itemized deductions subject to the 2% of adjusted gross income floor.

But deductions aren’t the only things that can trigger the AMT. Some income items might do so, too, such as:

  • Long-term capital gains and dividend income, even though they’re taxed at the same rate for both regular tax and AMT purposes,
  • Accelerated depreciation adjustments and related gain or loss differences when assets are sold,
  • Tax-exempt interest on certain private-activity municipal bonds, and
  • The exercise of incentive stock options.

Alternative Minimum Tax Planning Tips
If it looks like you could be subject to the AMT in 2018, consider accelerating income into this year. Doing so may allow you to benefit from the lower maximum AMT rate. And deferring expenses you can’t deduct for AMT purposes may allow you to preserve those deductions. If you also defer expenses you can deduct for AMT purposes, the deductions may become more valuable because of the higher maximum regular tax rate.

Please contact us if you have questions about whether you could be subject to the AMT this year or about minimizing negative consequences from the AMT.

Incentive stock options allow you to buy company stock in the future at a fixed price equal to or greater than the stock’s fair market value on the grant date. If the stock appreciates, you can buy shares at a price below what they’re then trading for. However, complex tax rules apply to this type of compensation.

Current tax treatment

ISOs must comply with many rules but receive tax-favored treatment:

  • You owe no tax when ISOs are granted.
  • You owe no regular income tax when you exercise ISOs, but there could be alternative minimum tax (AMT) consequences.
  • If you sell the stock after holding the shares at least one year from the exercise date and two years from the grant date, you pay tax on the sale at your long-term capital gains rate. You also may owe the 3.8% net investment income tax (NIIT).
  • If you sell the stock before long-term capital gains treatment applies, a “disqualifying disposition” occurs and any gain is taxed as compensation at ordinary-income rates.

So if you were granted ISOs in 2016, there likely isn’t any impact on your 2016 income tax return. But if in 2016 you exercised ISOs or you sold stock you’d acquired via exercising ISOs, then it could affect your 2016 tax liability. And it’s important to properly report the exercise or sale on your return to avoid potential interest and penalties for underpayment of tax.

Future exercises and stock sales

If you receive ISOs in 2017 or already hold ISOs that you haven’t yet exercised, plan carefully when to exercise them. Waiting to exercise ISOs until just before the expiration date (when the stock value may be the highest, assuming the stock is appreciating) may make sense. But exercising ISOs earlier can be advantageous in some situations.

Once you exercise ISOs, the question is whether to immediately sell the shares you receive or to hold on to them long enough to garner long-term capital gains treatment. The latter strategy often is beneficial from a tax perspective, but there’s also market risk to consider. For example, it may be better to sell the stock in a disqualifying disposition and pay the higher ordinary-income rate if it would avoid AMT on potentially disappearing appreciation.

The timing of the sale of stock acquired via an exercise could also positively or negatively affect your liability for higher ordinary-income tax rates, the top long-term capital gains rate and the NIIT.

Planning ahead

Keep in mind that the NIIT is part of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), and lawmakers in Washington are starting to take steps to repeal or replace the ACA. So the NIIT may not be a factor in the future. In addition, tax law changes are expected later this year that might include the elimination of the AMT and could reduce ordinary and long-term capital gains rates for some taxpayers. When changes might go into effect and exactly what they’ll be is still uncertain.

If you’ve received ISOs, contact us. We can help you ensure you’re reporting everything properly on your 2016 return and evaluate the risks and crunch the numbers to determine the best strategy for you going forward.

Many expenses that may qualify as miscellaneous itemized deductions are deductible only to the extent they exceed, in aggregate, 2% of your adjusted gross income (AGI). Bunching these expenses into a single year may allow you to exceed this “floor.” So now is a good time to add up your potential deductions to date to see if bunching is a smart strategy for you this year.

Should you bunch into 2016?

If your miscellaneous itemized deductions are getting close to — or they already exceed — the 2% floor, consider incurring and paying additional expenses by Dec. 31, such as:

  • Deductible investment expenses, including advisory fees, custodial fees and publications
  • Professional fees, such as tax planning and preparation, accounting, and certain legal fees
  • Unreimbursed employee business expenses, including vehicle costs, travel, and allowable meals and entertainment.

But beware …

These expenses aren’t deductible for alternative minimum tax (AMT) purposes. So don’t bunch them into 2016 if you might be subject to the AMT this year.

Also, if your AGI exceeds the applicable threshold, certain deductions — including miscellaneous itemized deductions — are reduced by 3% of the AGI amount that exceeds the threshold (not to exceed 80% of otherwise allowable deductions). For 2016, the thresholds are $259,400 (single), $285,350 (head of household), $311,300 (married filing jointly) and $155,650 (married filing separately).

If you’d like more information on miscellaneous itemized deductions, the AMT or the itemized deduction limit, let us know.