What will your 2017 tax liability be?
When it comes to income taxes, nothing is simple. For example, first you need to consider your marginal tax rate -- this is the regular rate you'll pay on your next dollar of "ordinary income" (salary, business income, interest and more).
Then there’s the alternative minimum tax (AMT), which was designed to ensure wealthy taxpayers with “excessive” deductions would pay some income tax. The top AMT rate is lower than the top regular income tax rate on ordinary income. (See the Chart “2017 individual income tax rate schedules.”) But the AMT rate typically applies to a higher taxable income base. So if you plan only for regular income taxes, it can result in unwelcome tax surprises.
You also need to consider the various tax deductions and credits that could save you taxes. On the other hand, income-based phaseouts and other limits can reduce or eliminate the benefits of these breaks, effectively increasing your marginal tax rate.
Many deductions used to calculate regular tax aren’t allowed under the AMT (see the Chart “Regular tax vs. AMT: What’s deductible?”) and thus can trigger AMT liability. Some income items also might trigger or increase 2017 AMT liability:
- Long-term capital gains and dividend income, even though they’re taxed at the same rate for both regular tax and AMT purposes,
- Accelerated depreciation adjustments and related gain or loss differences when assets are sold, and
- Tax-exempt interest on certain private-activity municipal bonds. (See the AMT Alert under “Income investments.”)
Finally, in certain situations incentive stock option (ISO) exercises can trigger significant AMT liability.
If you pay AMT in one year on deferral items, such as depreciation adjustments, passive activity adjustments or the tax preference on ISO exercises, you may be entitled to a credit in a subsequent year.
In effect, this takes into account timing differences that reverse in later years.
Many expenses that may qualify as miscellaneous itemized deductions on your 2017 return are deductible for regular tax purposes only to the extent they exceed, in aggregate, 2% of your AGI, such as:
- Deductible investment expenses, including advisory fees, custodial fees and publications,
- Professional fees, such as tax planning and preparation, accounting, and certain legal fees, and
- Unreimbursed employee business expenses, including travel, meals, entertainment and vehicle costs.
Under the Affordable Care Act (ACA), if 2017 medical expenses not paid via tax-advantaged accounts or reimbursable by insurance exceed 10% of your AGI, you can deduct the excess amount.
ALERT! Additional relief may be available on your 2017 tax return under The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 (TCJA). The TCJA calls for the floor to be reduced to the pre-ACA level of 7.5% for 2017 for both regular and AMT purposes.
Eligible expenses may include:
- Health insurance premiums,
- Long-term care insurance premiums (limits apply),
- Medical and dental services,
- Prescription drugs, and
- Mileage (17 cents per mile driven for health care purposes in 2017,
down from 19 cents in 2016).
If one spouse has high medical expenses and a relatively lower AGI, filing separately may allow that spouse to exceed the AGI floor and deduct some medical expenses that wouldn’t be deductible if the couple filed jointly.
Expenses that are reimbursable by insurance or paid through a tax-advantaged account such as the following aren’t deductible:
HSA. If you’re covered by a qualified high-deductible health plan, you can contribute pretax income to an employer-sponsored Health Savings Account — or make deductible contributions to an HSA you set up yourself — up to $3,400 for self-only coverage for 2017 (up from $3,350 for 2016) and $6,750 for family coverage for 2017 (same as 2016). Moreover, for 2017 (same as 2016), you may contribute an additional $1,000 if you're age 55 or older.
HSAs can bear interest or be invested, growing tax-deferred similar to an IRA. Withdrawals for qualified medical expenses are tax-free, and you can carry over a balance from year to year.
FSA. You can redirect pretax income to an employer-sponsored Flexible Spending Account up to an employer-determined limit (not to exceed $2,600 for plan years beginning in 2017, up from $2,550 for 2016). The plan pays or reimburses you for qualified medical expenses. With limited exceptions, you have to make your election before the start of the plan year. What you don’t use by the end of the plan year, you generally lose — though your plan might allow you to roll over up to $500 to the next year. Or it might give you a 2 ½-month grace period to incur expenses to use up the previous year’s contribution. If you have an HSA, your FSA is limited to funding certain “permitted” expenses.
For 2017, the break allowing you to take an itemized deduction for state and local sales taxes in lieu of state and local income taxes can be valuable to taxpayers residing in states with no or low income tax or who purchase a major item, such as a car or boat.
Except for major purchases, you don’t have to keep receipts and track all the sales tax you actually paid in 2017. Your deduction can be determined using an IRS sales tax calculator that will base the deduction on your income and the sales tax rates in your locale plus the tax you actually pay on major purchases.
If your 2017 AGI exceeds the applicable threshold, your personal exemptions will be phased out and your itemized deductions reduced. For 2017, the thresholds are $261,500 (single), $288,650 (head of household), $313,800 (joint filer) and $156,900 (married filing separately). These are up from the 2016 thresholds, which were $259,400 (single), $285,350 (head of household), $311,300 (joint filer) and $155,650 (married filing separately).
The personal exemption phaseout reduces 2017 exemptions by 2% for each $2,500 (or portion thereof) by which a taxpayer’s AGI exceeds the applicable threshold (2% for each $1,250 for married taxpayers filing separately).
The itemized deduction limitation reduces otherwise allowable 2017 deductions by 3% of the amount by which a taxpayer’s AGI exceeds the applicable threshold (not to exceed 80% of otherwise allowable deductions). It doesn’t apply, however, to deductions for medical expenses, investment interest, or casualty, theft or wagering losses.
In addition to income tax, you must pay Social Security and Medicare taxes on earned income, such as salary and bonuses. The 12.4% Social Security tax applies to earned income up to the Social Security wage base of $127,200 for 2017 (up from $118,500 for 2016). All earned income is subject to the 2.9% Medicare tax. Both taxes are split equally between the employee and the employer.
If you’re self-employed, your employment tax liability typically doubles, because you also must pay the employer portion of these taxes. For 2017, the employer portion of self-employment taxes paid (6.2% for Social Security tax and 1.45% for Medicare tax) is deductible above the line.
As a self-employed taxpayer, you may benefit from other above-the-line deductions as well. For 2017, you can deduct 100% of health insurance costs for yourself, your spouse and your dependents, up to your net self-employment income. You also can deduct contributions to a retirement plan and, if you’re eligible, an HSA for yourself. Above-the-line deductions are particularly valuable because they reduce your AGI and modified AGI (MAGI), which are the triggers for certain additional taxes and the phaseouts of many tax breaks.
Another employment tax that higher-income taxpayers must be aware of is the additional 0.9% Medicare tax. It applies to FICA wages and self-employment income exceeding $200,000 per year ($250,000 for married filing jointly and $125,000 for married filing separately).
Note that there’s no employer portion of this tax. So unlike the Social Security tax and the regular Medicare tax, the additional Medicare tax doesn’t double for the self-employed. But this also means that no portion of the tax is deductible above the line against self-employment income.
Also consider the withholding rules. Employers are obligated to withhold the additional tax beginning in the pay period when wages exceed $200,000 for the calendar year — without regard to an employee’s filing status or income from other sources. So your employer might withhold the tax even if you aren’t liable for it — or it might not withhold the tax even though you are liable for it.
If you don’t owe the tax but your employer is withholding it, you can claim a credit on your income tax return for the year the tax was withheld. If you do owe the tax but your employer isn’t withholding it, consider filing a W-4 form to request additional income tax withholding, which can be used to cover the shortfall and avoid interest and penalties. Or you can make estimated tax payments.
There are special considerations if you’re a business owner who also works in the business, depending on its structure:
Partnerships and limited liability companies. Generally, all trade or business income that flows through to you for income tax purposes is subject to self-employment taxes — even if the income isn’t actually distributed to you. But such income may not be subject to self-employment taxes if you’re a limited partner or an LLC member whose ownership is equivalent to a limited partnership interest. Whether the additional 0.9% Medicare tax on earned income or the 3.8% net investment income tax (NIIT) will apply also is complex to determine. So, check with your tax advisor.
S corporations. Only income you receive as salary is subject to employment taxes and, if applicable, the 0.9% Medicare tax.
C corporations. Only income you receive as salary is subject to employment taxes, and, if applicable, the 0.9% Medicare tax.
Warning: The IRS is cracking down on misclassification of corporate payments to shareholder-employees, so tread carefully.
You can be subject to penalties if you don’t pay enough tax during the year through estimated tax payments and withholding. Here are some strategies to help avoid underpayment penalties:
Know the minimum payment rules. For you to avoid penalties, your estimated payments and withholding must equal at least 90% of your tax liability for the year or 110% of your tax for the previous year (100% if your AGI for the previous year was $150,000 or less or, if married filing separately, $75,000 or less).
Use the annualized income installment method. This method often benefits taxpayers who have large variability in income by month due to bonuses, investment gains and losses, or seasonal income (especially if it’s skewed toward the end of the year). Annualizing computes the tax due based on income, gains, losses and deductions through each estimated tax period.
Estimate your tax liability and increase withholding. If as year end approaches you determine you’ve underpaid, consider having the tax shortfall withheld from your salary or year end bonus by December 31. Because withholding is considered to have been paid ratably throughout the year, this is often a better strategy than making up the difference with an increased quarterly tax payment, which may still leave you exposed to penalties for earlier quarters.
Warning: You also could incur interest and penalties if you’re subject to the additional 0.9% Medicare tax and it isn’t withheld from your pay and you don’t make sufficient estimated tax payments.