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Alternative Minimum Tax Planning – Investments – Capital Gains

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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.