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Planning for the 3.8 percent Medicare tax on investment income


Andrew Presti

The health care reform package (the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act and the Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act of 2010) imposes a new 3.8 percent Medicare contribution tax on the investment income of higher-income individuals. Although the tax does not take effect until 2013, it is not too soon to examine methods to lessen the impact of the tax.

Net investment income

“Net investment income” includes interest, dividends, annuities, royalties and rents and other gross income attributable to a passive activity. Gains from the sale of property not used in an active business and income from the investment of working capital are also treated as investment income. Further, an individual’s capital gains income will be subject to the tax. This includes gain from the sale of a principal residence, unless the gain is excluded from income under Code Sec. 121, and gains from the sale of a vacation home. However, contemplated sales made before 2013 would avoid the tax.

The tax applies to estates and trusts, on the lesser of undistributed net income or the excess of the trust/estate adjusted gross income (AGI) over the threshold amount ($11,200) for the highest tax bracket for trusts and estates, and to investment income they distribute.

However, the tax will not apply to nontaxable income, such as tax-exempt interest or veterans’ benefits.

Deductions

Net investment income is gross income or net gain, reduced by deductions that are “properly allocable” to the income or gain. This is a key term that the Treasury Department expects to address in guidance, and which we will update on developments. For passively-managed real property, allocable expenses will still include depreciation and operating expenses. Indirect expenses such as tax preparation fees may also qualify.

For capital gain property, this formula puts a premium on keeping tabs on amounts that increase your property’s basis. It also focuses on investment expenses that may reduce net gains: interest on loans to purchase investments, investment counsel and advice, and fees to collect income. Other costs, such as brokers’ fees, may increase basis or reduce the amount realized from an investment. As such, taxpayers may want to consider avoiding installment sales with net capital gains (and interest) running past 2012.

Thresholds

The tax applies to the lesser of net investment income or modified AGI above $200,000 for individuals and heads of household, $250,000 for joint filers and surviving spouses, and $125,000 for married filing separately. MAGI is your AGI increased by any foreign earned income otherwise excluded under Code Sec. 911; MAGI is the same as AGI for someone who does not work overseas.

Example. Jim, a single individual, has modified AGI of $220,000 and net investment income of $40,000. The tax applies to the lesser of (i) net investment income ($40,000) or (ii) modified AGI ($220,000) over the threshold amount for an individual ($200,000), or $20,000. The tax is 3.8 percent of $20,000, or $760. In this case, the tax is not applied to the entire $40,000 of investment income.

Exceptions to the tax

Certain items and taxpayers are not subject to the 3.8 percent Medicare tax. A significant exception applies to distributions from qualified plans, 401(k) plans, tax-sheltered annuities, individual retirement accounts (IRAs), and eligible 457 plans. There is no exception for distributions from nonqualified deferred compensation plans subject to Code Sec. 409A. However, distributions from these plans (including amounts deemed as interest) are generally treated as compensation, not as investment income.

The exception for distributions from retirement plans suggests that potentially taxable investors may want to shift wages and investments to retirement plans such as 401(k) plans, 403(b) annuities, and IRAs, or to 409A deferred compensation plans. Increasing contributions will reduce income and may help you stay below the applicable thresholds. Small business owners may want to set up retirement plans, especially 401(k) plans, if they have not yet established a plan, and should consider increasing their contributions to existing plans.

Another exception is provided for income ordinarily derived from a trade or business that is not a passive activity under Code Sec. 469, such as a sole proprietorship. Investment income from an active trade or business is also excluded. However, SECA (Self-Employment Contributions Act) tax will still apply to proprietors and partners. Income from trading in financial instruments and commodities is also subject to the tax.

The additional 3.8 percent Medicare tax does not apply to income from the sale of an interest in a partnership or S corporation, to the extent that gain of the entity’s property would be from an active trade or business. The tax also does not apply to business entities (such as corporations and limited liability companies), nonresident aliens (NRAs), charitable trusts that are tax-exempt, and charitable remainder trusts that are nontaxable under Code Sec. 664.

Income tax rates

In addition to the tax on investment income, certain other tax increases proposed by the Obama administration may take effect in 2011. The top two marginal income tax rates on individuals would rise from 33 and 35 percent to 36 and 39.6 percent, respectively. The maximum tax rate on long-term capital gains would increase from 15 percent to 20 percent. Moreover, dividends, which are currently capped at the 15 percent long-term capital gain rate, would be taxed as ordinary income. Thus, the cumulative rate on capital gains would increase to 23.8 percent in 2013, and the rate on dividends would jump to as much as 43.4 percent. Moreover, the thresholds are not indexed for inflation, so more taxpayers may be affected as time elapses.

Please contact our office if you would like to discuss the tax consequences to your investments of the new 3.8 percent Medicare tax on investment income.

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