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Alternative Minimum Tax and Depreciation

January 26th, 2010 Comments off

Surprisingly, one of every six individuals paying the Alternative Minimum Tax has depreciation as an AMT item. It may or may not individually be a large item to a particular taxpayer, but the good news is that it is easy to plan around, and this planning can be done any time up until the filing of the tax return. In other words, a taxpayer with this item still may have the opportunity to reduce his AMT for 2009.

There are numerous ways depreciation may show up in an individual taxpayer’s Form 1040. One is rental property the individual owns; another is business property if the business is being operated as a sole proprietorship. Other ways are if the business or rental property is in a “pass-through” entity. Examples of these include LLCs, partnerships, and S corporations, in which case the income and expenses, and any of the separate AMT items, are reported on the individual owners’ tax returns.

Here’s how depreciation works. Assume a business asset cost $10,000, and that the period over which it will be used (its “useful life”) is 5 years. Under the basic “straight-line” method of depreciation, the taxpayer would report an expense of $2,000 per year over this period.

But, in an effort to encourage investment, Congress allows a choice of other depreciation methods, all of which allow more of the expense to be deducted in the early years of the property’s life. For example, under something called the “double declining balance” method, here is how the cost would be recovered:

Year 1 – 40%, or $4,000
Year 2 – 24%, or $2,400
Year 3 – 14%, or $1,400
Year 4 – 11%, or $1,100
Year 5 – 11%, or $1,100

Total – $10,000

While the double declining balance method may be used for Regular Tax purposes, it is not allowed for purposes of the Alternative Minimum Tax. The most accelerated depreciation method that may be used for a taxpayer’s AMT calculation in this example, the so-called “150% declining balance” method, would result in depreciation deductions as follows:

Year 1 – 30%, or $3,000
Year 2 – 21%, or $2,100
Year 3 – 17%, or $1,700
Year 4 – 16%, or $1,600
Year 5 – 16%, or $1,600

Total – $10,000

Matching these two schedules, the AMT item in each of the 5 years is the difference between the two:

Year 1 – $1,000 AMT item (AMT income is higher than Regular Tax income)
Year 2 – $300 AMT item “
Year 3 – ($300) AMT item (AMT income is lower than Regular Tax income)
Year 4 – ($500) AMT item “
Year 5 – ($500) AMT item “

Total – $0

The planning opportunity here simply is to choose a depreciation method that does not result in an AMT item. For Regular Tax purposes, a taxpayer may choose to use the 150% declining balance method (the AMT method) or the straight-line method instead of the double declining balance method. By doing this, there will be no AMT item to report. Note that this election is available each year for property that is placed in service during that year. Note also, however, that the choice of method is made at the entity level, so if the property is in an LLC, partnership or S corporation, the election is made in the filing of that entity’s tax return.

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Alternative Minimum Tax Planning…Investments – Capital Gains

January 2nd, 2010 Comments off

Capital gains are income derived from the sale of property, most typically investment property. While capital gains are not directly an AMT preference item, they do have an impact on a taxpayer’s Alternative Minimum Tax, and, therefore, are an essential element of AMT planning. One real-life scenario with which the writer is familiar involved a retiree with what one would call a typical investment portfolio, including mutual funds, and it was solely a larger-than-usual year-end capital gain distribution from one mutual fund that threw that individual into the AMT.

For a little review, capital gain income historically has been taxed at a rate lower than the rate that applies to other, “ordinary,” income such as salaries and wages and interest income. This lower rate applies only to “long-term” capital gain (LTCG), which means the taxpayer must hold the property for over one year before selling it. Under current law, most dividend income also receives this favorable LTCG treatment.

In general, the tax rates that apply in computing the Alternative Minimum Tax are different from the rates that apply in computing the Regular Tax. However, LTCG is taxed at the same rate for both computations – typically 15%. Thus, a LTCG by itself is not an AMT item. Despite this treatment, however, a LTCG definitely can be a factor that triggers the AMT.

Here’s what happens. First, every taxpayer is entitled to an AMT Exemption amount. This Exemption is designed to prevent taxpayers with only small AMT items from paying the AMT. For example, a couple filing a joint return for 2009 is entitled to an Exemption of $70,950. Unfortunately, however, this Exemption is phased out as the taxpayer’s income increases. The actual phase-out is the loss of $1 of Exemption for every $4 of additional income (i.e., at a 25% rate). So even though LTCG is not a preference item, the more capital gain a taxpayer has the more of his Exemption is phased out and, thus, the more likely he is to pay the AMT. This is exactly what happened to the retiree mentioned above, who, by the way, also happened to be 90 years old at the time. While it may not seem right, there certainly is no AMT forgiveness even for old age!

To illustrate how this works, assume a taxpayer realizes an additional $10,000 of LTCG. In comparing the tax rate schedules for the AMT and the Regular Tax, one would conclude that this capital gain income would have no impact on the taxpayer’s AMT because it is taxed at the same rate under both computations. But here’s what actually happens by adding $10,000 to taxable income:

(a) Income increase of $10,000
(b) AMT Exemption Phase-out (25%) = $2,500
(c) Increase in AMT Income (a) + (b) = $12,500

This increase in AMT income at a rate 25% greater than Regular taxable income is the problem. It is simple math – the more AMT income taxed, the greater the chance of being pulled into the AMT.

In summary, an AMT payer definitely needs to factor capital gains into the equation when doing any tax planning. With year-end now only a little more than two weeks away, anyone thinking of recognizing gains this year had better take this into account.

George Bauernfeind is with AMTIndividual, providing analysis, customized strategies, and an online dual tax calculator / planner to help you reduce your Alternative Minimum Tax. Visit www.amtindividual.com or www.amtblog.com to read more tax planning articles or to access to this tax software on the Alternative Minimum Tax.

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