The Alternative Minimum Tax for Dummies
Okay, first, if you’re paying Alternative Minimum Tax, you’re probably not a dummy. Most people who have to pay the Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT) are highly paid employees. If you were really a dummy, you wouldn’t have a job that makes you pay AMT. That said, AMT taxes are really confusing and can make you feel like an idiot. I’ll try to make some sense of it here.
Why do we even have the AMT? Good question! Our tax laws have benefits for certain kinds of income and special deductions and credits for certain expenses. For example, you don’t pay tax on the interest from a munincipal bond and you get a tax deduction for paying mortgage interest on a house. If a person plays his cards right, he could drastically reduce his tax by taking advantage of these deductions. Congress created the AMT in 1969 so that high income taxpayers who claim lots of deductions still wind up paying income tax. That was the intention of the law—to make things fair.
Why is AMT such a pain in the behind now? For one thing, the AMT wasn’t indexed for inflation. What was considered to be wealthy in 1969 is fairly middle-class in 2011. People who were never originally targeted for the AMT are now subject to AMT taxes. Congress passed legislation last December for an “AMT patch” to adjust for inflation. The patch will be good for 2010 and 2011, but if they don’t make some type of permanent adjustment, we’ll be dealing with this over and over again starting in 2012.
Who has to pay AMT? Using the IRS definition: You may have to pay the AMT if your taxable income for regular tax purposes plus any adjustments and preference items that apply to you are more than the AMT exemption amount.
How’s that in plain English? For most people, if you don’t itemize your deductions, you probably won’t have to pay AMT. If you do itemize, one big deduction people lose has to do with employee business expenses—like when sales people take a deduction for their mileage, those people get hit with AMT. If you’re a salesperson who claims employee business expense deductions on your tax return, you’re much more likely to be hit with AMT than a person who doesn’t.
Other AMT hot spot issues are your state income taxes that you paid, and mortgage interest expense. With your mortgage, you can deduct the interest on the money that you used to purchase your home or improve your home. But if you refinanced your home to pay off a credit card, that part of your interest payment won’t be a deduction for you on the AMT form. Also, if you had enough medical expenses to claim a deduction on your regular return, it will be reduced or eliminated when calculating the AMT.
There are lots of items that affect the AMT, but those are ones that I see regularly when I’m doing tax returns with AMT. There are things like mining costs, intangible drilling costs, and research and experimental costs. I’m sticking with the issues that are fairly common.
If you’re using tax software, it will calculate the AMT for you automatically. You’ll notice that if your AMT is lower than your regular tax, you don’t get your taxes lowered. You only get to see the AMT tax if you owe more. (Doesn’t seem quite fair does it?)
If you’re still doing your return by hand, or just want to estimate of you will have to pay AMT for next year, you can use the AMT assistant on the IRS website. http://www.irs.gov/businesses/small/article/0,,id=150703,00.html