At this time last year, income tax planning was particularly challenging. Several tax deductions had already expired, and significant changes, including new, higher income tax rates, were scheduled to take effect at the end of the year. Legislation passed in mid-December, however, hit the “reset” button, reinstituting already-expired deductions, and extending major tax provisions–including lower rates–for an additional one to two years.

As a result of the December legislation, 2011 tax planning takes place in an environment characterized by something that was missing last year–a relative degree of certainty. That being said, here are some things to keep in mind as you consider your current tax situation.

Tax rates/calculation

  • Federal income tax rates –The same six federal income tax rates that applied in 2010 will continue to apply in 2011 and 2012. So, depending on your taxable income, you’ll fall into either the 10%, 15%, 25%, 28%, 33%, or 35% rate bracket. Remember, though, that all of your taxable income is not necessarily taxed at that rate–instead, the rate at which you pay tax generally increases as your income increases. For example, if you’re a single individual with 2011 taxable income of $100,000, you fall into the 28% tax bracket. However, your first $8,500 of taxable income is taxed at 10%, your next $26,000 of taxable income is taxed at 15%, and your next $49,100 in taxable income is taxed at 25%. Only $16,400 of your taxable income is actually taxed at 28%.
  • Rates for long-term capital gains and qualifying dividends –As in 2010, long-term capital gains and qualifying dividends continue to be taxed at a maximum rate of 15% through 2012; if your income (including any long-term capital gains and qualifying dividends) puts you in the 10% or 15% income tax brackets in 2011 and 2012, a special 0% rate will generally continue to apply.
  • Alternative minimum tax (AMT) –While regular income tax rates and the maximum rates that apply to long-term capital gains and qualifying dividends were extended through 2012, the latest AMT “fix” (in the form of increased AMT exemption amounts) is effective only through 2011. So, if you think you may be subject to the AMT this year, the good news is that you know ahead of time what the relevant exemption amounts are ($74,450 for married individuals filing jointly, $48,450 for unmarried individuals, $37,225 for married individuals filing separately); the bad news is that the AMT situation for 2012 remains up in the air. You can probably expect another AMT fix later this year, but as it stands now, AMT exemption amounts will drop significantly in 2012, dramatically increasing the number of taxpayers ensnared by this parallel tax system.

Temporary payroll tax reduction

Available for 2009 and 2010, the Making Work Pay tax credit was a refundable tax credit equal to the lesser of 6.2% of earned income or $400 ($800 for married couples filing joint returns); the credit was phased out for those with higher incomes. The tax credit was not extended to 2011, but the December legislation created a new one-year 2% reduction in employee

[intlink id=”596″ type=”post”]Social Security[/intlink] payroll taxes (the 2% reduction also applies to the self-employment tax paid by self-employed individuals).

So, if you’re an employee, 4.2% of your 2011 wages (up to the 2011 taxable wage base of $106,800) is being withheld for your portion of the Social Security retirement component of FICA employment tax instead of the 6.2% that would normally be withheld. If you’re self-employed, the 12.4% you would normally pay for the Social Security portion of your 2011 self-employment tax is reduced to 10.4%. So, if you earn $100,000 in wages, you’ll have an extra $2,000 in take-home pay for 2011. Consider opportunities to take advantage of this extra income by, for example, increasing your retirement savings; applying the extra money toward a long-term goal could extend the benefit of this temporary tax reduction beyond 2011.

Other considerations

  • IRA qualified charitable distributions –Unless Congress passes additional legislation, 2011 will be the last opportunity for individuals age 70½ or older to make qualified charitable distributions (QCDs) of up to $100,000 from an
[intlink id=”535″ type=”post” target=”_blank”]IRA directly to a qualified charity[/intlink]. These charitable distributions can be excluded from your income, and count toward satisfying any required minimum distributions (RMDs) that you would otherwise have to take from your IRA for 2011.
  • Depreciation and IRC Section 179 expensing –If you’re a business owner or self-employed individual, you’re allowed a first-year depreciation deduction of 100% of the cost of qualifying property acquired and placed in service during 2011. The “bonus” first-year depreciation deduction drops to 50% for property acquired and placed in service during 2012. Additionally, the maximum amount that can be expensed under Internal Revenue Code (IRC) Section 179 for 2011 is $500,000; in 2012, the limit is currently scheduled to drop to $125,000.
  • Small business stock –Generally, you can exclude 50% of any capital gain from the sale or exchange of qualified small business stock provided that you meet certain requirements, including a five-year holding period. For qualified small business stock issued and acquired in 2011, however, you’ll be able to exclude 100% of any capital gain from income if the qualified stock is held for at least five years and all other requirements are met.
  • Energy efficient improvements –Though not as generous as it has been the last two years, a credit is still available to individuals who make energy-efficient improvements to their homes. You may be entitled to a 10% credit for the purchase of qualified energy-efficient improvements, including a qualifying roof, windows, skylights, exterior doors, and insulation materials. Specific credit amounts may also be available for the purchase of specified energy-efficient property: $50 for an advanced main air circulating fan; $150 for a qualified furnace or hot water boiler; and $300 for other items, including qualified electric heat pump water heaters and central air conditioning units. There’s a lifetime credit cap of $500 ($200 for windows), however. So, if you’ve claimed the credit in the past–in one or more tax years after 2005–you’re only entitled to the difference between the current cap and the total amount that you’ve claimed in the past. That includes any credit that you claimed in 2009 and 2010, when the aggregate limit on the credit was $1,500.
  • Investment Advisor Representative: Cambridge Investment Research Advisors, Inc., a Registered Investment Advisor.  Registered Representative: Securities offered through Cambridge Investment Research Inc., a Broker/Dealer, Member FINRA/SIPC.  Cambridge and Affinity Wealth Advisors Inc are not affiliated.