03 Jan Seven FAQs About The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017
A complete overhaul of the U.S. tax system only happens once in a decade or more, with the last such transformation occurring under President Bush in 2003. Before that, you have to go back all the way to Reagan in 1986 to find such a complete reconstruction. Now, as 2017 comes to a close, it seems the history books will put it into the same category as those hallmark years, at least from a tax reform perspective.
While Congress has worked quickly over the last month or so to produce the final bill, the final version wasn’t released until December 15, along with supporting Conference Committee notes. During the process, media outlets on both sides covered the situation by mostly focusing on the political themes involved, but we wanted to leave those issues aside and focus instead on answering practical questions that clients may have about the bill.
So with that in mind, here are seven frequently asked questions (FAQs) about the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017:
When Will the New Trump Tax Bill Take Effect?
The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 makes changes to the tax code effective in 2018 and beyond. Like the previous major tax bill, it contains many provisions which are subject to a “sunset clause,” meaning they are technically not permanent, but will be reversed in 2025 unless Congress acts. However, in practice it is doubtful that Congress will not act by then to change them in some way. For 2017, the former tax rules stay in place, so any deductions that were taken by year end will continue to apply as before, with a few specific exceptions.
What is the Major Theme of This Tax Bill?
There are a lot of opinions about what this bill is all about and what it’s intended to accomplish. To be fair, it is a sweeping piece of legislation that affects many parts of the tax code. However, media coverage of the bill seems to characterize it in one of several (perhaps misleading) ways. For example, it’s often called a “tax break for the rich.” While it’s true that the highest income tax brackets will receive tax relief, according to the Tax Policy Center, “the bill would reduce taxes on average for all income groups.” And while it’s true that the highest income brackets will receive the largest tax relief, they also pay the largest tax bills. In fact, the top 20% of earners pay about 80% of the total income tax collected in the U.S.
House Republicans (and later President Trump) have been championing the idea of simplifying the tax code so that the average citizen could file their taxes “on a postcard.” While filing your taxes will be easier and simpler for some people, the tax system was not radically simplified in any meaningful way by this bill. I’ll address this is more detail in a separate question below.
Instead, we would argue the most significant changes revolve around corporate tax reform. Corporate tax rates will go down, corporate AMT is eliminated, worldwide corporate income taxation will be drastically changed, and many other reforms. Importantly, these corporate tax provisions are permanent (not subject to the “sunset provision”). Whether these changes are good or bad will be debated for many years, but that is the central theme of the 2017 tax bill, in our view.
Does the New Tax Bill Reduce My Deductions?
In a word, yes.
One of the central promises Republicans endeavored to keep with the new tax plan was to simplify the tax code for most taxpayers. In trying to keep that goal, they lowered tax rates across the board and doubled the standard deduction, but reduced or eliminated a myriad of itemized deductions. However, in the end, many of the deductions they originally wanted to eliminate got added back to the code, simply because the “pain” that taxpayers in high state income tax and property tax areas would face was too high of a political cost.
So, the final result is that while deductions are somewhat limited compared to previous years, lower tax rates, higher standard deductions, and expanded child tax credits mean that the vast majority of taxpayers will actually pay fewer taxes in 2018 than they did in 2017.
Does the New Tax Plan Eliminate the AMT (Alternative Minimum Tax)?
One major difficulty in tax planning under the current system is the AMT, which is essentially a separate set of tax laws intended as a “catch all” to make sure high income taxpayers pay “their fair share.” However, because the AMT framework wasn’t indexed for inflation, it began to hit more and more middle-class taxpayers in recent years. In practice, it prevented many legitimate tax strategies from being utilized at all.
Ultimately, Congress was not able to remove the AMT system entirely, so as a compromise they simply increased the AMT exemption amounts. The net result is a much smaller percentage of people will be caught in the “AMT trap,” and it will return to being an obscure tax detail that few people know or worry about.
Will the New Trump Tax Plan Increase the Deficit / National Debt?
Perhaps one of the most controversial aspects of the new tax bill is the potential it has to increase the deficit, and thereby also accelerate the growth of the national debt. Several nonpartisan groups have attempted to “score” the bill’s future economic effects, with varying results.
The CBO estimates that the Senate’s version of the bill would increase the deficit by $1.7 trillion dollars over the next ten years, while the Center for Tax Policy puts the increase at about $1.3 trillion. Conversely, the Tax Foundation’s analysis shows that additional revenues from economic growth could bring the plan “close to revenue neutral.”
Will Most Americans Be Able to File Their Taxes “On a Postcard?”
One of the promises from Trump’s campaign was to greatly simplify the tax filing process for most Americans. Currently, only about 30 percent of taxpayers claim itemized deductions, which means 70 percent can already use the simplified 1040EZ form to file, which Mike Mazur of the Tax Policy Center calls a “giant postcard.”
Will that number increase now with the increased standard deduction, which reduces the need for people with itemized deductions (such as charitable deductions, mortgage interest, and medical expenses) to itemize? “You can file with the EZ form, but it’s probably not in your best interest” to do so, says an executive at Jackson Hewitt Tax Service. While the new tax bill simplifies the tax code in some ways, it increases complexity in others.
“I’m already getting new clients,” Karla Dennis, the founder of tax preparation firm in California, told NBC. “It’s really confusing — it’s not simplified in any stretch of the imagination.”
How Does the New Tax Plan Affect Me?
As mentioned above, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 is a sweeping piece of legislation affecting many different areas of tax policy. If you’re a business owner or self-employed, there are many changes in the bill that affect you, the most important of which will likely be the “pass-thru” provisions for LLCs, S corporations, and other small business entities. For higher income salaried employees, relief from the Alternative Minimum Tax will probably be the most obvious change. For families with children, the expansion of the child tax credit and new planning opportunities with 529 plans and custodial accounts come to mind.
For anyone with large itemized deductions and/or charitable contributions, there may be opportunities for complex tax planning to preserve your deductions. We will be having these conversations one-on-one over the next tax year, but as just one example of many, the increased standard deduction opens up new tax planning opportunities for those who are charitably inclined. Instead of giving the same amount year after year, we predict larger, one-time gifts to charitable trusts or donor advised funds may increase in popularity.
For executives in large companies, obviously a lower corporate tax bill will generate discussions about how best to employ the additional capital. And for high net worth individual with complex estate tax plans in place, changes may be needed in that area as well, since the estate and gift tax deductions have been doubled, but the estate tax itself has not been repealed as some predicted. In fact, while the number of wealthy families exposed to the estate tax will obviously go down, those that are exposed are likely to become even more visible to the IRS.
Financial planning expert Michael Kitces elaborates:
Expect a further crackdown on advanced estate tax strategies in the coming years – especially GRATs, which are already on Congress’ radar – as the IRS becomes even more targeted.
The bottom line is that for most people, your overall tax bill will be going down, but your overall tax prep will probably not become any simpler. In fact, maximizing the benefits you could receive under the new law will require careful planning that is tailored to your unique situation. That’s where we come in. We will be looking for these opportunities carefully over the coming months and beyond, and meeting with clients to help them navigate the tax planning landscape successfully.
Note: for a more detailed overview of the tax reforms within the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, visit the Heritage Foundation’s analysis page.
Curtis Hearn, CFP®
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