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Tax hikes ahead? Be prepared

Monday, June 25, 2012

The only thing certain about the tax code these days is, well, the uncertainty of it all. If Congress doesn’t take action before the end of the year, federal tax increases will go into effect next year, raising levies on income, capital gains, dividends, wages, gifts, estates, and more.
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Here’s an overview of some of the key tax policy issues to keep on your radar screen. Then for specific strategies to consider in preparation, read Viewpoints: Prepare for tax changes. 

Lower tax rates are set expire at the end of 2012

Most observers agree that Congress is going to have a hard time addressing tax and budget issues before the November elections, says Shahira Knight, Fidelity’s vice president of government relations. "More likely, action will wait until a lame-duck session of Congress, or 2013, and that’s unsettling for investors and the markets,” she notes. “It may be a roller-coaster ride as key deadlines approach.”
So where does that leave you as a taxpayer and investor? “A good approach is to be prepared for a range of possibilities, and to start now,” says Jim Buza, vice president of guidance and advice for Fidelity. “That’s really what you should do in any climate, but it’s especially critical now.” To get started, use our tax calculator to the right to estimate how you might be impacted.
The tax cuts enacted by Congress in 2001 and 2003—often referred to as the Bush tax cuts—provided a broad range of tax relief, including lower tax rates on income, long-term capital gains, and qualified dividends. We dodged the expiration of these lower taxes back in 2010 when Congress extended the tax cuts for two years (through 2012). Now cuts are set to expire on December 31, 2012, and any action will likely come down to the wire as it did in 2010.
It’s difficult to predict what will happen, but three scenarios are possible:
  1. All the tax cuts could expire if Congress and the president fail to reach an agreement before December 31. In this case, the new Congress could act in 2013 to reinstate some of or all the tax cuts.
  2. The tax cuts could be extended temporarily, giving Congress time to act on a permanent solution—possibly by reforming the tax code.
  3. Some type of compromise could be reached in the lame duck session, with some taxes extended or modified and others allowed to expire.
One area of uncertainty is income tax rates. Without action, the 25%, 28%, 33%, and 35% tax rates will increase, and the 10% tax bracket will go away.
The tax rates on long-term capital gains and qualified dividends, which are currently 15% (0% for taxpayers in the lowest two income brackets) are also set to change. Without Congressional action, the long-term capital gains rate would revert to 20% for most taxpayers and to 10% for those in the 15% income tax bracket in 2013. Qualified dividends, meanwhile, would go back to being taxed as ordinary income, so for some investors, the top tax rate could rise to 39.6%
Estate and gift taxes also were part of the 2001 tax cuts. For 2012, beneficiaries have to pay estate tax on amounts over $5.12 million at a top rate of 35%. The exemption is scheduled to revert to $1 million in 2013, and the top rate will increase to 55%.
The limitation on certain itemized deductions (known as Pease, named for the congressman who helped create the legislation) and the phaseout of personal exemptions (known as PEP, personal exemption phaseout) also need to be addressed. These provisions have the effect of further increasing the tax rate of people in higher income tax brackets. PEP and Pease are currently suspended, but they will come back in 2013 unless Congress acts.
A long list of other taxes could also be impacted. For example, without congressional action, the child tax credit will be reduced, and marriage penalty relief will expire, as will a host of tax benefits for education, adoption, and dependent care.
The prevailing sentiment among lawmakers in both parties, according to Knight, seems to be to avoid increasing taxes on middle-income households—but the definition of middle income hasn’t been agreed upon. The president defines it as single tax filers with incomes below $200,000 and joint tax filers with incomes below $250,000. Others have said the line should be drawn at $1 million, notes Knight. The real disagreement is about what happens to taxes affecting higher earners with incomes above these levels. However, if Congress and the president gridlock and fail to act, the tax cuts will expire for everyone—including middle- and lower-income families.

Many tax provisions have already expired and need to be extended

Several popular tax provisions expired at the end of 2011. These provisions have routinely been extended in the past, but because of the tight budget situation, lawmakers will be scrutinizing them more closely, and some of the provisions may not be renewed. Here are a few of the items on the bubble:
  • The option to deduct state and local sales taxes on your federal return instead of state and local income taxes.
  • The ability to make tax-free individual retirement account (IRA) distributions to qualified charities at age 70½.
  • Various energy efficiency tax credits.
  • The ability to deduct mortgage insurance premiums on your federal tax return.
The alternative minimum tax (AMT) patch is another item that has yet to be renewed for 2012. Without it, the exemption amount will drop to the 2000 level of $45,000 from last year’s $74,450 for couples filing jointly. If that happens, about 31 million taxpayers would have to pay at least some AMT in 2012, compared to 4 million in 2011.1

New taxes from health care reform

Among the many provisions of the Affordable Care Act of 2010 are tax increases on higher earners to defray the cost of the legislation. Unless the health care reform law is overturned in its totality by the Supreme Court or changed by Congress, the tax provisions will take effect in 2013. (Read Viewpoints: Supreme Court and health care: what it means.)
First, the employee’s share of the Medicare payroll tax will increase to 2.35% from 1.45% on wages above $200,000 (single filers) and $250,000 (joint filers). Second, taxpayers will owe a new 3.8% tax on their net investment income (including interest, dividends, capital gains, annuities, royalties, certain rents, and certain other passive business income) on modified adjusted gross income (AGI) above $200,000 (single filers) and $250,000, (joint filers). This new 3.8% tax will be imposed on the lesser of a taxpayer’s net investment income or on the amount of their modified AGI above those amounts.

How to prepare

All these tax provisions, and many others, will be in play as the end of the year approaches and Congress debates how to address the nation’s budget challenges. Rather than try to predict how the debate will turn out, your time probably would be better spent focusing on sound tax planning that can serve you well in multiple scenarios, says Buza.

Next steps

The tax information and estate planning information contained herein is general in nature, is provided for informational purposes only, and should not be construed as legal or tax advice. Fidelity does not provide estate planning, legal, or tax advice. Fidelity cannot guarantee that such information is accurate, complete, or timely. Laws of a particular state or laws that may be applicable to a particular situation may have an impact on the applicability, accuracy, or completeness of such information. Federal and state laws and regulations are complex and are subject to change. Changes in such laws and regulations may have a material impact on pre- and/or after-tax investment results. Fidelity makes no warranties with regard to such information or results obtained by its use. Fidelity disclaims any liability arising out of your use of, or any tax position taken in reliance on, such information. Always consult an attorney or tax professional regarding your specific legal or tax situation.
1. The Fidelity® Personalized Portfolios service applies tax-sensitive investment management techniques (including tax-loss harvesting) on a limited basis, at its discretion, primarily with respect to determining when assets in a client’s account should be bought or sold. Because it is a discretionary investment management service, any assets contributed to an investor’s account that Fidelity Personalized Portfolios does not elect to retain may be sold at any time after contribution. An investor may have a gain or loss when assets are sold.


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