A massive debate is playing out over legislation that affects the lives of every American: taxes. But are the changes under consideration actually going to make a difference to your bottom line?
As it happens, most people don’t have a mortgage, most people don’t own stocks and, as a rule, most people are unaffected by carve-out exemptions created in response to lobbying for small classes of individuals. The reality is that, outside of the marginal rates that determine how much of your income goes to taxes and the personal exemption you get just for existing, the standard deduction is probably the single part of the tax code that most affects a majority of Americans.
A major component of the tax plan that Republicans have proposed — aside from lowering the corporate tax rate — is roughly doubling of the standard deduction. The bill will be much easier to pass if the cost of those tax breaks is partially or wholly offset by other changes that increase federal revenue. As the House and Senate work on their versions of a new tax plan, we thought we’d break down who might be affected by some of the proposals that are getting the most attention.
Doubling the standard deduction
Right now you can either itemize deductions — laboriously indicating the amount of money you earned that is exempt from taxation due to a number of carve-outs we’ll get to below — or just take the standard deduction, which is a set amount of money that you can choose to deduct, tax-free, from your overall net income rather than do the math. For example, the standard deduction was great for me personally when I was working in restaurants in college, given that I didn’t have many expenses that I could take as deductions. If the standard deduction had been doubled then, it could even have completely eliminated what I owed in taxes.
The standard deduction is currently $6,350 for single filers and $12,700 for married couples filing jointly. In 2015, 69 percent of households took the standard deduction, so right off the bat, those households would benefit by being able to write off twice as much money. For the 30 percent of households that itemized their deductions, whether they benefit depends on how much they’re able to itemize: If their itemized deductions amount to just a bit more than the current standard deduction, this is probably pretty good for them because they would get a bigger deduction without having to do the work of itemizing; if their itemized deductions are far higher than the current standard deduction, they’ll still need to itemize, so nothing would change for them; if their itemized deductions are relatively close to the proposed new standard deduction, they won’t be able to tell offhand whether they’re better off itemizing or using the standard deduction, so they’re probably going to have to pay their accountant to figure it out anyway.
By that token, this may be bad for some of the people who either directly derive their income from tax preparation and litigation (the country’s 1.4 million accountants, plus tax lawyers) or people who work in fields where existing deductions serve as incentives to use their goods or services (like the 440,000 real estate agents and everyone who works in charity).
Boosting the child tax credit while removing the personal exemption
Of the 150.6 million tax returns filed in 2015, 22.6 million took advantage of the child tax credit, for a total of 27.4 billion untaxed dollars. As it currently stands, you can reduce your income by up to $1,000 for each dependent kid you claim. Your ability to take this discount is mainly defined by your income: The credit begins to be scaled back starting at $110,000 a year for married couples. The current House GOP plan would increase the credit from $1,000 to $1,600, which would be $600 worth of good news per kid for those 22.6 million filers. The plan would also offer a $300 tax credit for each non-child dependent, such as an elderly parent or a child older than 17.
However, the plan also gets rid of the personal and dependent exemptions. That allows each person — the tax filer, their spouse, their dependents — to make $4,050 of their income exempt. Taxpayers took 293 million exemptions in 2015, amounting to just over 1.1 trillion dollars. As a result, the math gets a little harder on families here: gaining $600 and losing the taxed portion of $4,050 per child, essentially. For larger families, the hike on the standard deduction isn’t going to wipe out those losses.
Scrapping the state and local tax deduction
Republicans are calling for the removal of the deduction for state and local taxes, but boy is this one dicey. Right now, you can deduct the amount you pay in state and local taxes from your federal taxable income. This means if you made $50 last year and paid $10 in state and local taxes, you’d only need to pay federal income tax on $40. Different states and localities have wide ranges of income taxes, and some don’t charge any at all. I live in New York City, which is a high-tax city in a high-tax state. My state and local taxes last year were the main reason I didn’t take the standard deduction. This change could really suck for me!
Generally speaking, if you pay enough money in state and local taxes that it makes sense to itemize, this change is not good for your bank account. In 2015, 42.6 million tax returns (28.3 percent of them) included deductions for state and local taxes. Looking at people who made between $50,000 and $100,000 in adjusted gross income that year (middle-income households, roughly speaking), 42 percent deducted state and local taxes in 2015, and the average deduction was $3,195. For some people, doubling the standard deduction can compensate for this elimination, but for taxpayers who stack further write-offs — say, for student loans or mortgage interest — on top of state and local ones, those combined deductions may be worth more than the doubled standard deduction, so they’d feel a pinch.
In addition to people like me who live in high-tax areas, this also hurts people who make enough money that the percentage they fork over even in low-tax states and localities exceeds the standard deduction.
Taxing contributions to 401(k) plans
The government would really rather you did not go broke before you die, so they set up some incentives to get a bunch of free-spending young people to sock money away. The feds let you stash up to $18,000 per year in a 401(k) retirement account without paying taxes on it up front.
When I eventually get to use that money, I’ll have to pay taxes on it, but that’s Old Walter’s problem. If you don’t want to burden your future self, you can go with a Roth IRA, which taxes the money now but lets Old Walter, that coddled jerk, off the tax hook. You probably decided which one you were going to use right after you started a new job, the kind of stressful and nauseating time that is perfect for complex financial decision-making.
One idea for tax reform is to make the people with that first plan use the second one instead, which gives the government its money up front. In 2016, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 62 percent of Americans worked for a private employer that offers a defined contribution plan like a 401(k) or IRA, and a Census Bureau working paper estimated that on the whole, 79 percent of Americans work at places that sponsor a 401(k)-style plan. Still, it may not matter much to tax reformers what type of retirement account people use, since both agencies agree that less than half of Americans contribute to one of these retirement accounts.
Ending the mortgage interest rate deduction
Then there’s the mortgage interest deduction. You may pay enough money in interest on your mortgage that it makes sense for you to take advantage of this tax break by itemizing your deductions rather than just taking the standard one. According to a 2015 Pew Charitable Trusts study, 44 percent of households have mortgage debt, owing a median of $103,000. An Urban Institute study last year found that of the 73.3 million housing units where the owner resided on the premises, 46.4 million units had a mortgage or home equity loan on them.
Both the House and Senate plans cap the amount of mortgage debt you can claim for this deduction, with the House dropping the cap to $500,000 and the Senate leaving it where it currently is, at $1,000,000. This change would only apply to new loans, so if you’re in the market for a pricey home — say, one in a major American city with a high cost of living — this may sting.
On the other hand, most households (56 percent) don’t have mortgage debt, some 26.9 million homes are owned free-and-clear, and many people who do have a mortgage just take the standard deduction anyway. If any of that sounds like you, you’re probably very cool with ending this giveaway to the landed gentry.
Axing the alternative minimum tax
Rule of thumb: If this is the first time you’re hearing about the alternative minimum tax, you’re probably pretty happy with the existence of the alternative minimum tax. It’s a tax that primarily affects the modestly wealthy and people who derive income from unconventional means or people whose financial situation allows them to exploit many deductions.
Basically, rich or well-off people can often take lots of deductions that make them look poorer on paper. They can afford that kind of tax prep, so they can make money from all the things they write off. This means that under the normal system, the well-off can end up paying the same effective tax rate as people who are much less affluent. The AMT seeks to compensate by forcing them to pay a higher share of their income in taxes.
There’s a chance that the individual AMT will not survive if one of the tax reform bills passes — it’s on the chopping block in both proposals. In 2015, 4.43 million of the 150.6 million tax returns filed that year were subject to the AMT, including about 66 percent of returns that reported an adjusted gross income above $250,000. If that sounds like you, you’re probably in favor of getting rid of the AMT.
There is a corporate version of the AMT as well, and that has been in conservative crosshairs for quite some time. According to the IRS, of the 5.9 million corporations that filed a return in 2013, only 10,222 had to pay the corporate AMT.
Removing the estate tax
The estate tax is assessed on the value of large estates when the owner dies. Of the estimated 2.5 million American adults who died in 2013, only 4,699 of them left an estate large enough that it was subject to this tax. In general, we’re talking about the hella wealthy here: Those 4,699 estates were worth, in aggregate, $86.3 billion; the tax that year only applied to estates valued at more than $5.3 million.
Only about 0.2 percent of adult deaths will involve a taxable estate, which is down from a recent high of 2.3 percent of adult deaths in 1999. The vast majority of Americans aren’t going to have to deal with this, and unless you’re looking at collecting an inheritance worth well over that in the near future, you’re probably fine with the estimated $17.1 billion the U.S. raked in from taxes on inheritances in 2015.
But hey, if you really think you’ll be an heir to the top 0.2 percent decedents, by all means call your senator and demand relief.
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