The Fiscal Cliff Deal: What It Means for You

By now, everyone has heard about the "fiscal cliff" bill signed into law on January 2, 2013, but what you might not understand is how it affects you. With that in mind, let's take a closer look.

What is the "Fiscal Cliff"?

The term "fiscal cliff" refers to the $503 billion in federal tax increases and $200 billion in spending cuts (according to recent Congressional Budget Office projections) that took effect at the end of 2012 and beginning of 2013--before Congress passed ATRA. It is the abruptness of these measures and possible negative economic impacts such as an increase in unemployment and a recession that has resulted in the use of the metaphor "fiscal cliff".

What Could Have Happened?

According to the Tax Policy Center the arrival of the fiscal cliff would have meant that nearly 90% of all households would see their taxes rise. The top 20 percent of Americans would see their effective tax rate rise about 5.8 percentage points on average, while the bottom 20 percent of Americans would see their tax rate rise about 3.7 percentage points as a result of the Bush-era tax cuts to income, estate, and capital gains tax.

Further, in addition to a rise in tax rates, middle class and the lower-income working families are affected by the fiscal cliff in other ways--among them child-related credits and deductions for dependent care and education, and the EITC.

What Actually Happened: The "Fiscal Cliff" Deal

On January 1, 2013, Congress passed the American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012, which President Obama signed into law the following day. The "fiscal cliff" bill, as it's referred to, extended a number of tax provisions that expired in 2011 and 2012, as well as increasing taxes on higher income individuals.

All Wage Earners

Personal tax rate. Marginal tax rates remained the same for most taxpayers (10%, 15%, 25%, 28%, 33%, and 35%) except for those taxpayers with taxable income greater than $400,000 (single filers) or $450,000 for married filers, whose rate increased to 39.6%.

Payroll taxes. The payroll tax holiday expired at the end of 2012 and was not extended. This means that you'll see 6.2% taken out of your paycheck for Social Security for the first $113,700 in wages for 2013 instead of 4.2%. For the average family making $50,000 a year, this amounts to $1,000 less in their pocket. The self-employed tax rate reverts to 15.3% up from 13.3% in 2012.

Unemployment Insurance. Federally funded unemployment insurance (UI) benefits, scheduled to end on December 29, 2012, were extended for another year, through December 29, 2013.

Middle Income Families

Child-Related Tax Credits. Child-related tax credits, used by families to offset their tax burden, have been extended under ATRA. The child tax credit remains at $1,000 and is still refundable. It is phased out for married couples who earn over $110,000 and single filers who earn more than $75,000. The dependent care tax credit is equal to 35% of the first $3,000 ($6,000 for two or more) of eligible expenses for one qualifying child.

Education. The American Opportunity Tax Credit, which was scheduled to revert to the Hope Credit ($1,500), has been extended through 2017. The credit is used to offset education expenses and is worth up to $2,500.

EITC. The EITC or Earned Income Tax Credit, which benefits low to middle income working families, is extended for five years through the end of 2017. In 2013 the maximum credit is $5,981.

Higher Income Earners

AMT. The AMT (Alternative Minimum Tax) "patch" (exemption amounts) was made permanent and indexed for inflation for tax years beginning in 2013 and made retroactive for 2012. In addition, nonrefundable personal credits can be used to offset AMT liability. For 2012, the exemption amounts are $78,750 for married taxpayers filing jointly and $50,600 for single filers.

Marriage Penalty. The larger standard deduction for married couples filing joint tax returns is retained ($12,200 in 2013) as is the increased size of the 15% income tax bracket. Generally, each spouse would need to earn income in excess of $80,000 (with no itemized deductions) in order to be hit with the marriage penalty; however, the higher your income, the harder you get hit with the penalty. Despite this, it usually makes more sense to file joint tax returns and not married filing separately. If you're not sure which filing status to use, give us a call.

Retirees

Long Term Capital Gains and Dividends. For retirees (and others) whose investment income is at or above $400,000 (single filers) or $450,000 (married filing jointly), long term capital gains and dividends are both taxed at 20%. However, taxpayers in the lower brackets (10% and 15%) however, the tax rate is zero. For middle tax brackets, long-term capital gains and dividends are taxed at 15%.

Even if that dividend income is part of an IRA or other retirement plan (and not in and of itself subject to taxes), retirees in the highest tax bracket ($400,000 for single filers) will still be affected by higher income tax rates in 2013 of 39.6%.

Wealthier Taxpayers

Estate and Gift Taxes. The exclusion for a decedent's estate remains at $5 million (adjusted for inflation) and the top tax rate increases to 40% for taxpayers with income of $400,000 ($450,000 married filing jointly). The "portability" election of exemptions between spouses remains in effect for decedents dying after 2012. The gift tax is increased to $14,000.

Pease amendment and PEP. The Pease amendment, which enabled wealthier taxpayers to get the full value of their itemized deductions, expired in 2012. As a result, taxpayers with incomes of $250,000 $300,000 married filing jointly) will see higher taxes, especially when taking into account higher personal tax rates, Medicare tax increases (see Higher Income Earners above), and the return of the personal exemption phaseout (PEP) provision in 2013 as well. Threshold amounts for PEP are $250,000 for single filers and $300,000 married filing jointly.

If you have questions or need help understanding how the fiscal cliff impacts you, don't hesitate to give us a call. We'll help you figure it out and plan ahead for the future.