If You Have High Income, Your Taxes Are Going Up

As the April 15 deadline for filing 2013 income taxes nears, most of us are finding that Uncle Sam will take about the same share of our income as last year. But the story is very different for people at the top of the income ladder. Their taxes are going up, in many cases by a lot.

Last year, the American Taxpayer Relief Act (ATRA) extended the Bush-era tax cuts for most Americans but restored higher pre-Bush taxes for high-income households. The top tax rate reverted to 39.6 percent for taxable income over $400,000 for singles and $450,000 for couples. And after a three-year hiatus, the phaseout of personal exemptions (PEP) and the limitation on itemized deductions (Pease) resumed for taxpayers with adjusted gross income (AGI) over $250,000 ($300,000 for joint filers).

Virtually all of the tax increase from those provisions and the higher top tax rate falls on those at the top of the income distribution: TPC estimates that after-tax income of the top 1 percent will fall by more than 3 percent.

In addition, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) created two new taxes that were aimed directly at high-income folks and are showing up for the first time on their 2013 tax returns. The Net Investment Income Tax adds an additional 3.8 percent income tax on dividends, capital gains, interest, and other investment income, while the Additional Medicare Tax adds a 0.9 percent tax on wage, salary, and self-employment income. Both taxes kick in when AGI tops $200,000 for singles or $250,000 for couples. Those thresholds are not indexed for inflation (in contrast to tax brackets, PEP, and Pease) and the two taxes will therefore affect more taxpayers in the future. TPC estimates that almost 90 percent of the tax increase will fall on the top 1 percent this year, cutting their after-tax income by nearly 2 percent.

Congress did the rich one small favor in ATRA by permanently adjusting the alternative minimum tax (AMT) for inflation. After a decade of patching the AMT every year or two, lawmakers permanently indexed its exemption, tax brackets and exemption phaseout. As a result, the AMT will affect relatively few additional taxpayers each year, rather than the tens of millions who were at risk of owing additional tax as they waited for Congress to patch the AMT again.

Because the AMT is now indexed and their regular taxes are rising, some high-income taxpayers will face a smaller AMT bill this year. Of course, that’s little comfort since their overall tax bill will still go up—the ACA taxes apply regardless of whether you owe AMT.

How does that happen? The AMT is the difference between your regular tax and an AMT calculation that limits your use of certain deductions and credits. You figure both measures and your total tax is the higher amount. If the AMT calculation doesn’t change but your regular tax goes up, the difference—your AMT—goes down. As a result, you owe the same amount of tax but since your regular tax is higher, your AMT is correspondingly smaller.

High-income taxpayers have been in President Obama’s crosshairs since he announced his campaign tax plan at a 2007 TPC event and tax hikes for the wealthy have been in every one of his budgets. After five years in office, the president has finally gotten a big part of what he wanted. But he’s not finished. Still on his to-do list are a 30 percent minimum tax for millionaires (the Buffett Rule) and a limit on the value of certain tax expenditures that would significantly boost taxes on high-income households.