What does the New Tax Law mean for New Jersey?

I wouldn’t have taken bets on it, but Washington has hammered out how our federal tax laws are going to look for the next 2 years. On the plus side, we know what taxes are going to look like in January 2011, which is a far better place to be than Monday of last week. On the downside, this does not represent thoughtful tax reform – instead, it is knee-jerk politicking with the intent to dump the tax issues in the voters' laps at the next election so no politician is "responsible" for having taxes go up.

The cost of this package? $858,000,000,000.00 added to the federal deficit- yeah, that's a big number. Oh, and "added to the federal deficit” really just means that we spent $858,000,000,000.00 that we don't have. What I'd like to see happen in the new year – an actual bi-partisan examination of how tax policy affects the economy, and a roadmap to create a balance between the amount that we are spending, and the amount of revenue being generated.

To get back to the new law, the Tax Relief, Unemployment Insurance Reauthorization, and Job Creation Act of 2010 ("TRA") extends many tax cuts that were going to expire on December 31, 2010, as well as throws in some new tax laws. Some highlights:

  • The maximum federal income tax rate will remain at 35%. New Jersey income taxes are an additional maximum 8.97%
  • Married couples will continue to benefit from the 200% standard deduction
  • High income taxpayers will not be subject to phase-out of itemized deductions and personal exemptions for high-income taxpayers
  • Most key - "Patch" of alternative minimum tax exemption to keep rate with inflation (this is a law they should really make permanent)
  • Capital gains and dividends will continue to be taxed at 15%. New Jersey income taxes are an additional maximum 8.97%
  • The federal estate tax returns with a portable exemption of $5 million per person and a maximum tax rate of 35% (more to follow). New Jersey’s exemption rate continues to be $675,000 per person and is not portable.
  • The greatest opportunity is created in the increase of the gift tax exemption and generation skipping tax exemption to $5 million per person at a 35% maximum rate. New Jersey does not have a gift tax.
  • Extension of unemployment benefits for 13 months
  • Employees will benefit from a 2% reduction in Social Security withholding
  • Business owners can depreciate 100% of new business assets placed in service before January 1, 2012

My thanks to Sobel & Co for their excellent TRA summary, which I used as a resource.

 

Estate Tax, AMT, etc - Has Washington forgetten about the Other Taxes

So Dem and GOP appear to all agree to extend this years income tax rates to next year - avoiding a jump in income and capital gains taxes when the ball falls on New Years Eve.  This has been greeted with great fanfare in the press and an apparent sigh of relief and an attitude of  "well, that's done now, on with Holiday shopping!". Whoa there - wait a minute - y'all ain't done yet.

Yes - the income tax effects everyone who earns or invests money, so agreement on that is the biggie.  But there are lots of other tax issues that need to be addressed before year end.

The AMT (Alternative Minimum Tax) is a second way to calculate taxes.  If you fall into the AMT, you pay the higher of the normal tax calculation or the AMT.  The AMT was designed to more effectively tax income of very high earners back in the days of tax shelters,etc. The problem is that the level at which a person "qualifies" for the AMT is not indexed for inflation - so each year more and more families fall into the AMT not because they necessarily earned more, but because their earnings increased by a natural costs of living amount and the AMT did not.  The result?  Each year in December Congress traditionally passes an AMT "patch" which effectively adjusts the AMT limit for inflation (why they don't just pass the law one time to index for inflation automatically each year I don't know - maybe so lawmakers can create press being seen as Robin Hood each year "we staved off the AMT for another year - Merry Christmas").

Even the IRS has implored Congress to patch the AMT.  According to Reuters "The U.S. tax chief told lawmakers on Wednesday the Internal Revenue Service needs clarity on the fate of the alternative minimum tax, which could ensnare 21 million unintended taxpayers if a law is not amended before year-end."  In fact, the IRS computers are already programmed as if the AMT was patched - if its not, they need to reprogram all their computers, which could delay refund processing as people being to file their 2010 income tax returns.

The Estate Tax is coming back to life next year too - anyone want to talk about that? Just like the income taxes were scheduled to rise, the estate tax is scheduled to come back at a $1million exemption per person next year.  Congress keeps talking about increasing the exemption to $3.5 million, but nothing concrete so far.  People want to be able to plan their estates, and this complete uncertainty of what to do next is paralyzing.

Image: renjith krishnan / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

More Tax Provisions than the Estate Tax Expiring December 31

Interior US Capitol Building Derek Jensen of Jensen Law Offices reminds us in his blog that the Estate Tax is not the only federal tax provision expiring on December 31 due to Congressional inaction this year.

The estate tax isn't the only tax provision expiring on Dec. 31. Due to congressional inaction 50 tax provisions will expire. Including the annual AMT patch, the deduction for state and local sales taxes, the $4,000 deduction for college tuition, a provision that allows taxpayers age 70-and-a-half or older to transfer up to $100,000 directly from an IRA to charity, the business R&D credit, and a biodiesel tax credit. Many of these provisions require action every year and they are likely to be extended again, but retroactively this year.

As a tax professional I find in mindboggling that Congress, whose constitutional mandate (Article 1, Section 7)is to make and pass tax laws "All bills for raising revenue shall originate in the House of Representatives; but the Senate may propose or concur with amendments as on other Bills" can't bring themselves to do their jobs.  

I know there is a lot going on in Washington, but these tax provisions all have a 1 year life, and Congress knows that they therefore must act on them every year.  It is not as if the tax code is a small deal - it is only the means by which the federal government makes the money they spend.  It is lazy to say "we'll do it next year and make it retroactive" because what if you don't?  How can a person or business plan how to allocate their dollars when the tax laws that share in those dollars are in limbo?  How can a business plan to invest in new research when they can't budget what it will cost them because they don't know if the Research and Development credits will exist? Why should 23 million more American's have to worry if the AMT may catch them this year (or just be surprised by it) because our elected representatives can't get around to passing the annual patch that resets the income levels?

All of us are working harder, doing more to meet our responsibilities - Congress should be held responsible to to make the time to meet their responsibilities and this nonchalance about doing their jobs should not be ignored (like they are doing to the tax code).