In 2013, a new and unique tax will take effect—a 3.8 percent “unearned income Medicare contribution” tax as part of the structure in place to pay for health care reform. The tax will be imposed on the “net investment income” (NII) of individuals, estates, and trusts that exceeds specified thresholds. The tax will generally fall on passive income, but will also apply generally to capital gains from the disposition of property.
For an individual, the tax will apply to the lesser of the taxpayer’s NII, or the amount of “modified” adjusted gross income (AGI with foreign income added back) above a specified threshold, which is:
- $250,000 for married taxpayers filing jointly and a surviving spouse;
- $125,000 for married taxpayers filing separately;
- $200,000 for single and head of household taxpayers.
Examples. A single taxpayer has modified AGI of $220,000, including NII of $30,000. The tax applies to the lesser of $30,000 or ($220,000 minus $200,000), the specified threshold for single taxpayers. Thus, the tax applies to $20,000.
A single taxpayer has modified AGI of $150,000, including $60,000 of NII. Because the taxpayer’s income is below the $200,000 threshold, the taxpayer does not owe the tax, despite having substantial NII.
For an estate or trust, the tax applies to the lesser of undistributed net income, or the excess of AGI over the dollar amount for the highest tax rate bracket for estates and trusts ($11,950 for 2013). Thus, the tax applies to a much lower amount for trusts and estates.
Application of tax
The tax applies to interest, dividends, annuities, royalties, and rents, and capital gains, unless derived from a trade or business. The tax also applies to income and gains from a passive trade or business.
Other items are excluded from NII and from the tax: distributions from IRAs, pensions, 401(k) plans, tax-sheltered annuities, and eligible 457 plans, for example. Items that are totally excluded from gross income, such as distributions from a Roth IRA and interest on tax-exempt bonds, are excluded both from NII and from modified AGI.
The tax does not apply to nonresident aliens, charitable trusts, or corporations.
Tax planning techniques
Taxpayers are concerned about having to pay the tax. One technique for avoiding the tax is to sell off capital gain property in 2012, before the tax applies. This can be particularly useful if the taxpayer is facing a large capital gain from the sale of a principal residence (after taking the $250,000/$500,000 exclusion from income). Older taxpayers who do not want to sell their property may want to consider holding on to appreciated property until death, when the property gets a fair market value basis without being subject to income tax.
The technique of “gain harvesting” may be even more attractive if tax rates increase on dividends, capital gains, and AGI in 2013, with the potential expiration of the Bush-era tax cuts. However, the status of these tax rates will not be determined until after the election, potentially in a lame-duck Congressional session. It is also possible that Congress will simply extend existing tax rates for another year and “punt” the decision until 2013, as tax reform discussions heat up.
Taxpayers may also want to change the source of their income. Investing in tax-exempt bonds will be more attractive, since the interest income does not enter into AGI or NII. Converting a 401(k) account or traditional IRA to a Roth IRA will accomplish the same purpose. Income from a Roth conversion is not net investment income, although the income will increase modified AGI, which may put other income in danger of being subject to the 3.8 percent tax. Increasing deductible or pre-tax contributions to existing retirement plans can also lower income and help the taxpayer stay below the applicable threshold.
Trusts and estates should make a point of distributing their income to their beneficiaries. A trust’s NII will be taxed at a low threshold (less than $12,000), while the income received by a beneficiary is taxed only if the much higher $200,000/$250,000 thresholds are exceeded.
There was some uncertainty about the tax taking effect because of litigation challenging the health care law providing the tax, but a June 2012 Supreme Court decision upheld the law. The application of the tax is also uncertain because the Republican leadership has vowed to pursue repeal of the health care law if the Republicans win the presidency and take control of both houses of Congress in the November 2012 elections. But this is speculative. In the meantime, the Supreme Court decision guarantees that the tax will take effect on January 1, 2013.
These can be difficult decisions. While economic considerations for managing assets and income are important, it also makes sense for a taxpayer to look at the tax impact if the certain asset sales or shifts in investment portfolios are otherwise being considered.