If you're still trying to sort out what the “fiscal cliff” tax deal means to you financially, be comforted in the knowledge that you're not alone.
You may have seen reports that income tax rates are only rising in 2013 for the wealthy few, and you may have seen reports that say most Americans will be paying more in federal taxes this year. Both of those statements are true.
To further complicate things, the fiscal cliff legislation approved Jan. 1 touched a long list of tax provisions — deductions, credits and rules — that will affect just about every taxpayer in some way.
I'll cover some of those changes here, but it looks like 2013 will be a good year to have the assistance of an accountant, or at least some up-to-date tax preparation software.
The legislation itself was about 150 pages, so I won't attempt to cover all the details, but I'll recap some key points and some retroactive tax breaks here:
For 2012 income taxes, the federal return due in April, no one's taxes were increased by the fiscal cliff deal, and many people will pay less than expected due to some retroactive tax breaks. Keep reading for more about those.
For 2013, the top tax rate is higher (39.6 percent versus 35 percent) for individuals earning $400,000-plus, and couples with incomes above $450,000 and filing jointly. Other taxes that affect the wealthy also increased from 2012 levels, including the estate tax, and capital gains and dividends taxes for those above certain incomes.
For everyone else, temporary income tax rate cuts were made “permanent,” which means lower rates that began during the last Bush administration are no longer due to automatically expire. Congress could still decide to change them.
For the majority of people, the most meaningful tax change for 2013 was the one not mentioned in the fiscal cliff deal; the expiration of the payroll tax break. The temporary reduction in the federal tax that comes off the top of workers' paychecks, and is used to pay Social Security benefits, was allowed to expire as scheduled. So, the employee share of the payroll tax returns to 6.2 percent of pay (from 4.2 percent in 2011 and 2012). That works out to another $500 in tax for every $25,000 in earnings. Earnings above $113,000 are not subject to payroll tax.
Many popular personal tax credits and deductions were extended by the tax deal, including credits related to children, college tuition, and adoptions, and deductions related to student loan interest, private mortgage insurance and school teacher expenses. A large number of business tax breaks were approved as well.
One part of the deal that will affect people right away is the retroactive extension of dozens of tax provisions that had expired at the end of 2011.
Those retroactive provisions are the ones that will result in many people paying less tax on their 2012 income than they might have expected.
Here's an example from my own household:
Last year, I had a bunch of insulation and duct-sealing work done on my house. Now, a federal tax credit for home energy efficiency that expired in 2011 has been revived and made retroactive, which means I'll be getting some money off my tax bill. The tax credit equals 10 percent of the amount spent on qualifying home energy efficiency upgrades, such as insulation, windows, and HVAC equipment, with a maximum tax credit of $500.
Everyone I have mentioned this tax credit to, including energy efficiency contractors, did not know it was included in the fiscal cliff deal. Details are still trickling out, but expect the IRS and Energy Star to update the regulations in the coming weeks. There are restrictions and rules that you'll need to check, but if you installed insulation or qualifying energy-efficient windows or skylights, HVAC equipment or a water heater, you're likely due for a tax reduction.
Tax credits are far more valuable than tax deductions because they reduce tax bills dollar-for-dollar, while deductions reduce the amount of income subject to taxes.
Many deductions can only be claimed by taxpayers who itemize, but there are also “above-the-line” deductions that can be claimed by people taking the standard deduction.
School teachers, for example, can now take an above-the-line deduction for 2012 of up to $250 for money they spent on classroom supplies. A deduction that reduces your federal taxable income also, in most cases, reduces your South Carolina taxable income.
For homeowners who itemize deductions, the fiscal cliff deal reinstated the deductibility of private mortgage insurance payments for 2012 and 2013. That one's going to save a lot of people a little money. The deduction phases out for those with adjusted gross incomes above $100,000.
The bottom line for lots of people is going to be lower-than-expected federal taxes on 2012 returns, followed by smaller paychecks in 2013 due to the expiration of the payroll tax cut.
Reach David Slade at 937-5552 or Twitter @DSladeNews.