Understanding Tax Lingo

Article Highlights

  • Filing status
  • Adjusted gross income (AGI)
  • Taxable income
  • Marginal tax rate
  • Alternative minimum tax (AMT)
  • Tax Credits
  • Underpayment of the estimated tax penalty

When discussing taxes, reading tax-related articles, or interpreting instructions, it’s helpful to understand the lingo and acronyms used by tax professionals. It can be difficult to understand tax strategies if you are not familiar with the basic terminologies used in taxation. The following article provides the necessary details associated with the most frequently encountered tax terms.

Filing Status

Generally, if you are married at the end of the tax year, you have three possible filing status options: married filing jointly, married filing separately, or, if you qualify, head of household. If you were unmarried at the end of the year, you would file as single, unless you are eligible for the more beneficial head of household status. A special status applies to some widows and widowers.

When using the married joint status, the income, deductions, and credits of the spouses are combined for reporting on the tax return. If the spouses file using the married separate status, they each file a separate tax return, and if they reside in a separate property state, each spouse includes just his or her own income and deductions on their individual return. In community property states, generally, the incomes and deductions of the spouses are combined and then split 50%/50% for married separate tax return reporting purposes.

Head of household is the most complicated filing status to qualify for and is frequently overlooked as well as incorrectly claimed. Generally, the taxpayer must be unmarried AND:

  • pay more than one half of the cost of maintaining as his or her home a household that was the principal place of abode for more than one half of the year of a qualifying child or certain dependent relatives, or
  •  pay more than half the cost of maintaining a separate household that was the main home for a dependent parent for the entire year.

A married taxpayer may be considered unmarried for the purpose of qualifying for head of household status if the spouses were separated for at least the last six months of the year, provided the taxpayer maintained a home for a dependent child for over half the year.

Surviving spouse (also referred to as qualifying widow or widower) is a rare status used only for a taxpayer whose spouse died in one of the prior two years and who has a dependent child at home. Joint rates are used. In the year the spouse passes away, the surviving spouse may file jointly with the deceased spouse if not remarried by the end of the year. In rare circumstances, for the year of a spouse’s death, the executor of the decedent’s estate may determine that it is better to use the married separate status on the decedent’s final return. The married separate status would then also require the surviving spouse to use the married separate status for that year.

Adjusted Gross Income (AGI)

 AGI is the acronym for adjusted gross income. AGI is generally the sum of a taxpayer’s income less specific subtractions called adjustments (but before the standard or itemized deductions). The most common adjustments are penalties paid for early withdrawal from a savings account, and deductions for contributing to a traditional IRA or self-employed retirement plan. A taxpayer’s AGI limits many tax benefits and allowances, such as credits, specific adjustments, and some deductions.

Modified AGI (MAGI)

Modified AGI is AGI (described above) adjusted (generally up) by tax-exempt and tax-excludable income. MAGI is a significant term when income thresholds apply to limit various deductions, adjustments, and credits. The definition of MAGI will vary depending on the item that is being limited.

Taxable Income

Taxable income is AGI less deductions (either standard or itemized). For years 2018 through 2025, another item that is subtracted when figuring taxable income is the deduction for qualified business income (generally 20% of qualified income from pass-through businesses such as partnerships, rentals, and sole proprietorships). Your taxable income is what your regular tax is based upon using a tax rate schedule specific to your filing status. The IRS publishes tax tables that are based on the tax rate schedules and that simplify the tax calculation, but the tables can only be used to look up the tax on taxable income up to $99,999.

Marginal Tax Rate (Tax Bracket)

Not all of your income is taxed at the same rate. The amount equal to your standard or itemized deductions is not taxed at all. The next increment is taxed at 10%, then 12%, 22%, etc., until you reach the maximum tax rate, which is currently 37%. When you hear people discussing tax brackets, they are referring to the marginal tax rate. Knowing your marginal rate is important because any increase or decrease in your taxable income will affect your tax at the marginal rate. For example, suppose your marginal rate is 24%, and you are able to reduce your income $1,000 by contributing to a deductible retirement plan. You would save $240 in federal tax ($1,000 x 24%). Your marginal tax bracket depends upon your filing status and taxable income. You can find your marginal tax rate using the table below.

Keep in mind when using this table that the marginal rates are step functions and that the taxable incomes shown in the filing-status column are the top value for that marginal rate range.

 

2019 MARGINAL TAX RATES
TAXABLE INCOME BY FILING STATUS
Marginal Tax Rate Single Head of Household Joint* Married Filing Separately
10% 9,700 13,850 19,400 9,700
12% 39,475 52,850 78,950 39,475
22% 84,200 84,200 168,400 84,200
24% 160,725 160,700 321,450 160,725
32% 204,100 204,100 408,200 204,100
35% 510,300 510,300 612,350 306,175
37% Over 510,300 Over 510,300 Over 612,350 Over 306,175

*Also used by taxpayers filing as surviving spouse

Capital Gains Tax Rates

Lower tax rates apply for gains upon sale of most property, such as stocks and real estate, held for over one year. These rates are 0%, 15% and 20%. Which rate applies depends on the amount of your taxable income.

Taxpayer & Dependent Exemptions

Before the changes made by the 2017 tax reform, you were allowed to claim a personal exemption for yourself, your spouse (if filing jointly), and each individual qualifying as your dependent. The deductible exemption amount was adjusted for inflation annually; the amount for 2019 is $4,200. However, the tax reform suspended the deduction for exemptions for 2018 through 2025.

Dependents

To qualify as a dependent, an individual must be the taxpayer’s qualified child or pass all five dependency qualifications: the (1) member of the household or relationship test, (2) gross income test, (3) joint return test, (4) citizenship or residency test, and (5) support test. The gross income test limits the amount a dependent can make if he or she is over 18 and does not qualify for an exception for certain full-time students. The support test generally requires that you pay over half of the dependent’s support. However, there are special rules for divorced parents and situations where several individuals together provide over half of the support.

Qualified Child

A qualified child is one who meets the following tests:

  1. Has the same principal place of abode as the taxpayer for more than half of the tax year except for temporary absences;
  2. Is the taxpayer’s son, daughter, stepson, stepdaughter, brother, sister, stepbrother, stepsister, or a descendant of any such individual;
  3. Is younger than the taxpayer;
  4. Did not provide over half of his or her own support for the tax year;
  5. Is under age 19, or under age 24 in the case of a full-time student, or is permanently and totally disabled (at any age); and
  6. Was unmarried (or if married, either did not file a joint return or filed jointly only as a claim for refund).

Deductions

A taxpayer generally can choose to itemize deductions or use the standard deduction. The standard deductions, which are adjusted for inflation annually, are illustrated below for 2019.

Filing Status Standard Deduction
Single $12,200
Head of Household $18,350
Married Filing Jointly $24,400
Married Filing Separately $12,200

The standard deduction is increased by multiples of $1,650 for unmarried taxpayers who are over age 64 or blind. For married taxpayers, the additional amount is $1,300. The extra standard deduction amount is not allowed for elderly or blind dependents. Those with significant deductible expenses can itemize their deductions instead of claiming the standard deduction. The standard deduction of a dependent filing his or her return will often be less than the single amount shown above.

Itemized deductions generally include:

  1. Medical expenses which are limited to those that exceed 10% of your AGI for 2019.
  2. Taxes consisting primarily of real property taxes, state income (or sales) tax, and personal property taxes, but limited to a total of $10,000 for the year.
  3. Interest on qualified home acquisition debt and investments; the latter is limited to net investment income (i.e., the deductible interest cannot exceed your investment income after deducting investment expenses).
  4. Charitable contributions, generally limited to 60% of your AGI, but in certain circumstances, the limit can be as little as 20% or 30% of AGI.
  5. Gambling losses to the extent of gambling income, and certain other rarely encountered deductions.

Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT)

The Alternative Minimum Tax is another way of being taxed that has often taken taxpayers by surprise. The Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT) is a tax that was originally intended to ensure that wealthier taxpayers with massive write-offs and tax-sheltered investments pay at least a minimum tax. However, even taxpayers whose only “tax shelter” is having a large number of dependents or paying high state income or property taxes were being affected by the AMT. Your tax must be computed by the regular method and also by the alternative method. The higher tax must be paid. The following are some of the more frequently encountered factors and differences that contribute to making the AMT greater than the regular tax.

  • The standard deduction is not allowed for the AMT, and a person subject to the AMT cannot itemize for AMT purposes unless he or she also itemizes for regular tax purposes. Therefore, it is important to make every effort to itemize if subject to the AMT.
  • Itemized deductions:

Interest in the form of home equity debt interest that cannot be traced to a deductible use. For years 2018–2025, interest paid on home equity debt is also not allowed for regular tax purposes.

  • Nontaxable interest from private activity bonds is tax-free for regular tax purposes, but some is taxable for the AMT.
  • Statutory stock options (incentive stock options), when exercised, produce no income for regular tax purposes. However, the bargain element (the difference between the grant price and exercise price) is income for AMT purposes in the year the option is exercised.
  • Depletion allowance in excess of a taxpayer’s basis in the property is not allowed for AMT purposes.

A certain amount of income is exempt from the AMT, but the AMT exemptions are phased out for higher-income taxpayers.

AMT EXEMPTIONS & PHASE OUT – 2019
Filing Status Exemption Amount Income Where Exemption Is Totally Phased Out
Married Filing Jointly $111,700 1,467,400
Married Filing Separate $55,850 $797,100
Unmarried $71,700 $733,700
AMT TAX RATES—2019
AMT Taxable Income Tax Rate
0 – $194,800 (1) 26%
Over $194,800 (1) 28%
(1) $97,400 for married taxpayers filing separately

Your tax will be whichever is the higher of the tax computed the regular way and by the Alternative Minimum Tax. Anticipating when the AMT will affect you is difficult because it is usually the result of a combination of circumstances. In addition to those items listed above, watch out for transactions involving limited partnerships, depreciation, and business tax credits only allowed against the regular tax. All of these can powerfully impact your bottom-line tax and raise a question of possible AMT. Fortunately, due to tax reform that the increased AMT exemption amounts and set higher thresholds before the exemption is phased out, fewer taxpayers are now paying AMT. Tax Tip: If you were subject to the AMT in the prior year, you itemized your deductions on your federal return for the prior year, and had a state tax refund for that year, part or all of your state income tax refund from that year may not be taxable in the regular tax computation. To the extent that you received no tax benefit from the state tax deduction because of the AMT, that portion of the refund is not included in the subsequent year’s income.

Tax Credits

Once your tax is computed, tax credits can reduce the tax further. Credits reduce your tax dollar for dollar and are divided into two categories: those that are nonrefundable and can only offset the tax, and those that are refundable. In addition, some credits are not deductible against the AMT, and some credits, when not fully used in a specific tax year, can carry over to succeeding years. Although most credits are a result of some action taken by the taxpayer, there are some commonly encountered credits that are based simply on the number or type of your dependents or your income. These and other popular credit are outlined below.

Child Tax Credit

Thanks to tax reform, the child tax credit has been increased to $2,000 per child (up from $1,000 in 2017). If the credit is not entirely used to offset tax, the excess portion of the credit, up to the amount that the taxpayer’s earned income exceeds a threshold of $2,500, but not more than $1,400, is refundable. The credit begins to phase out at incomes (MAGI) of $400,000 for married joint filers and $200,000 for other filing status. The credit is reduced by $50 for each $1,000 (or fraction of $1,000) of modified AGI over the threshold.

Dependent Credit – A nonrefundable credit is available to taxpayers with a dependent who isn’t a qualifying child, and like the increased child tax credit is designed to offset the loss of the exemption deduction as a result of tax reform. The dependent credit is $500. A qualifying child, the taxpayer, and if married, the spouse are not eligible for this credit. A child who isn’t a qualifying child but who qualifies as a dependent under the dependent relative rules would qualify the taxpayer to claim this credit.

Earned Income Credit

This is a refundable credit for a low-income taxpayer with income from working either as an employee or a self-employed individual. The credit is based on earned income, the taxpayer’s AGI, and the number of qualifying children. A taxpayer who has investment income such as interest and dividends in excess of $3,600 (for 2019) is ineligible for this credit. The credit was established as an incentive for individuals to obtain employment. It increases with the amount of earned income until the maximum credit is achieved and then begins to phase out at higher incomes. The table below illustrates the phase-out ranges for the various combinations of filing status and earned income and the maximum credit available.

2019 EIC PHASE-OUT RANGE
Number of Children Joint Return Others Maximum Credit
None $14,450 – $21,370 $8,650 – $15,570 $529
1 $24,820 – $46,884 $19,030 – $41,094 $3,526
2 $24,820 – $52,493 $19,030 – $46,703 $5,828
3 $24,820 – $55,952 $19,030 – $50,162 $6,557

Residential Energy-Efficient Property Credit

This credit is generally for energy-producing systems that harness solar, wind, or geothermal energy, including solar-electric, solar water-heating, fuel-cell, small wind-energy, and geothermal heat-pump systems. These items qualify for a 30% credit with no annual credit limit. Unused residential energy-efficient property credit is generally carried over through 2021. The credit rate reduces to 26% in 2020 and 22% in 2021. The credit expires after 2021.

Withholding and Estimated Taxes

Our “pay-as-you-earn” tax system requires that you make payments of your tax liability evenly throughout the year. If you don’t, it’s possible that you could owe an underpayment penalty. Some taxpayers meet the “pay-as-you-earn” requirements by making quarterly estimated payments. However, when your income is primarily from wages, you usually meet the requirements through wage withholding and rely on your employer’s payroll department to take out the right amount of tax, based on the information shown on the Form W-4 that you filed with your employer. To avoid potential underpayment penalties, you are required to deposit by payroll withholding or estimated tax payments an amount equal to the lesser of:

1) 90% of the current year’s tax liability; or

2) 100% of the prior year’s tax liability or, if your AGI exceeds $150,000 ($75,000 for taxpayers filing as married separate), 110% of the prior year’s tax liability.

If you had a significant change in income during the year, we can assist you in projecting your tax liability to maximize the tax benefit and delay paying as much tax as possible before the filing due date.

Please contact us if we can be of assistance with your tax planning needs.