The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, enacted in December 2017, is the most significant change to the U.S. Tax Code since 1986 and dramatically alters the tax landscape for individuals. A number of changes take effect this year, while other provisions will not take effect until 2019. Many provisions are temporary, set to expire in 2026, which creates uncertainty for tax planning.
New Income Tax Rates and Loss of Itemized Deductions
Most fundamentally, the new law significantly lowers income tax rates for individuals. The top individual rate is now 37 percent – down from 39.6 percent. Individuals can earn more before the top rate applies as well. Under the prior law, the top rate applied to any income over $470,000 for married individuals filing jointly. Now, the top rate for those individuals applies only to income over $600,000. These lower rates currently apply only to the 2018 through 2025 tax years.
The law also significantly increases the standard deduction. The standard deduction for married individuals filing jointly is now $24,000. For head-of-household filers, the standard deduction is now $18,000, and $12,000 for all other taxpayers. The law slashes a number of itemized deductions, however, such as the deductions for unreimbursed employee expenses, union dues, and tax preparation fees. As a result, more individuals should elect the standard deduction.
State and Local Deduction Limitation
Another major change is a new $10,000 limitation on the deduction for state and local tax, or SALT, which includes state and local income taxes, local real estate taxes and state sales taxes. Previously, there was no limitation on an individual’s SALT deduction. The new limitation is more unfavorable for individuals in high tax states, such as California and New York. The average SALT deduction in California was around $18,500, while the average deduction in New York was around $22,000.
Some states, notably New York and California, are attempting to work around the SALT limitation. The California Senate recently passed a bill that would allow taxpayers a credit against their state income tax for contributions to the newly created California Excellence Fund. The theory is that Californians could also deduct these contributions for federal tax purposes as charitable contributions. If the California bill becomes law, the IRS will likely challenge it. It is unclear whether these “contributions” would actually count as charitable contributions because there would be no real charitable intent.
New York, New Jersey and Connecticut are also preparing to sue the federal government to challenge the SALT deduction limitation.
Mortgage Interest Deduction Limitation
The law also reduces the amount of mortgage interest individuals can deduct. The previous limit was $1 million, but the new law caps mortgage interest deductions at $750,000 on acquisition indebtedness. Acquisition indebtedness is debt incurred in acquiring, constructing or substantially improving a residence. The new law also completely disallows the deduction for home equity indebtedness interest – even if the home equity loan was taken out before the new law was enacted.
Increased Charitable Contribution Deduction Limitation
The new law is more favorable to charitable contributions. It increases the limits on deductions for charitable contributions to public charities and some private foundations from 50 percent to 60 percent of an individual’s adjusted gross income. For tax purposes, however, the increased limit is helpful only for individuals whose itemized deductions are higher than the increased standard deduction.
One way to beat the higher standard deduction and take advantage of the increased limit on itemized charitable deductions is to “bunch” charitable contributions that would otherwise be made over several tax years into one year.
Other Changes to Consider
There are a number of other changes individuals should consider. The law removes the tax for failing to have health insurance, starting in 2019. This could effectively undermine the entire Affordable Care Act. It also modifies the alternative minimum tax, or AMT, by increasing the exemption amount. The higher exemption amount means that fewer taxpayers will be subject to the AMT. The law also curtails the availability of “like-kind” exchanges.
Under Section 1031, taxpayers could previously exchange all property for similar property and defer the tax. Now, however, real estate is the only property that qualifies for like-kind exchange treatment.
Finally, it is important to note the significant changes for taxpayers who hold interests in pass-through entities. The new law creates a 20 percent deduction for certain business income from pass-through entities. Importantly, however, the deduction does not apply to certain service businesses, including law and accounting firms.