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Tax reform: The biggest changes

New rules could affect income taxes, deductions, college savings, and more.

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Key takeaways

  • The House and Senate have passed a tax reform bill, paving the way for sweeping changes in the tax code.
  • The bill calls for new income tax rates, corporate tax rates, and modifications to many deductions.
  • Individuals should consult with a tax professional to understand how changes to the tax code may impact their strategies for deductions, estate planning, education funding, and small-business income.

Both the House and Senate have passed, and the President is expected to sign, a sweeping tax reform bill, ushering in a broad range of changes including new rules for income tax rates and deductions, college savings incentives, estate planning, and corporate taxes. Now may be time to consider what is in the final bill, and what it may mean for you.

"This is the most sweeping tax reform package in decades," says Jim Febeo, senior vice president in Fidelity's government relations team. "We are happy that the legislation preserved important retirement savings incentives and tax strategies for investors."

Adjusted individual tax brackets and lower rates

The new tax code will reduce several of the marginal income tax rates (see chart). Those new tax brackets, and the other changes to the individual tax code would all be temporary—Congress would need to act or the rules would revert to current law after December 31, 2025.

New higher standard deduction

Tax reform will combine the personal exemption and standard deduction into a single higher standard deduction, which will be indexed to inflation. The child tax credit increases and there will be a new dependent tax credit. The higher standard deduction for people age 65 and older will still exist. The new provisions would expire for taxable years after December 31, 2025, and the rules would return to current law.

Rules for 2017 New 2018 rules
Standard deduction $6,350 per individual
$12,700 married couple filing jointly (MFJ)
$12,000 per individual
$24,000 married couple filing jointly
Child tax credit $1,000 $2,000
Senior citizens
(over age 65)
Addition $1,500 (individuals)
Additional $2,500 (Couple MFJ, both spouses over age 65)
No change
Dependent tax credit None $500 per non-child dependent

These plans will change the balance between itemized and standard deductions. Higher standard deductions mean it will make sense for fewer people to itemize deductions—so charitable gifts, medical expenses, home mortgage interest, and other itemized deductions, will all face a higher threshold before they become useful.

In addition, the proposal directly changes or limits a large number of deductions and credits. Here is a look at how a few of the most popular deductions will change.

Deductions and credits Rules for 2017 New 2018 rules
Mortgage interest $1 million primary, and second homes and some home equity debt Limited to $750,000 of mortgage debt for primary and secondary homes. This provision would be applicable for taxable years after December 31, 2017 and beginning before January 1, 2026, when the limit would return to $1,000,000.

Eliminates deduction for interest on new home equity loans until taxable years beginning after December 31, 2025.
State and local tax deduction Deductible Capped at $10,000 for sales and state and local property taxes or sales and state and local income taxes
Medical expense deduction Expenses greater than 10% of AGI are deductible Expenses greater than 7.5% of AGI could be deducted for the next 2 years only.
Adoption expense tax credit Expenses up to $13,570 qualify No change

Retirement savings incentives unaffected

The new rules do not call for changes to existing retirement savings incentives, preserving the favorable tax treatment and contribution limits for 401(k)s, IRAs, and other retirement savings accounts. The proposals also left the rules for health savings accounts intact.

The proposal does call for ending the Roth IRA recharacterization option starting in 2018, but 2017 recharacterizations will be permitted. Recharacterization allowed taxpayers to undo a Roth IRA conversion for a limited time, and was often useful if the value of the converted investments fell.

Temporary increase in federal estate tax exemption

The legislation will roughly double the federal estate tax exemption to $11 million per person ($22 million per couple). That limit will be indexed to inflation, but would expire and revert back to current law after 2025.

Beneficiaries will still get a step up in basis, meaning there would be no capital gains tax due on inherited assets at the time of the transfer, and the cost basis—the value used to compute tax liability—would be reset to the price at that date.

It is important to note that state level estate tax exemptions are often much lower than the federal level and are unaffected by this proposal. In addition, the temporary nature of the higher limit means that if you have an estate plan, you should proceed carefully before making any changes.

"While a further increase in the estate tax exemption will help some families avoid this tax at the federal level," says Kevin Ruth, head of wealth planning and personal trust at Fidelity, "it remains important for all households to have a current estate plan that helps ensure their wishes are carried out and reduces the cost of transferring assets as part of an estate."

Changes to the alternative minimum tax (AMT)

The AMT was designed to prevent high-income individuals from avoiding income tax by piling up deductions. It is essentially a parallel method for calculating your income tax liability.

The tax reform legislation makes changes designed to limit the impact of the tax. The plan will raise the minimum income level at which the AMT could apply, from $50,600 to $70,300 for individuals and from $78,750 to $109,400 for couples married filing jointly.

New corporate tax rate and pass-through tax rate

Corporate tax rates will be cut to 21% beginning in 2018. That tax cut is not scheduled to expire.

Pass-through businesses, businesses structured as sole proprietorships, partnerships, and S-corporations, will be taxed at individual tax rates, but will be able to deduct 20% of income. To prevent high-income individuals from taking advantage of this deduction, it would only be available to couples filing jointly with incomes below $315,000. For income above that level, the deduction would be limited to half of the W-2 wages or the individual's portion of the pass-through entity's income.

The plan would let businesses fully expense new equipment right away, but the provision would eventually expire.

529 plans become more flexible

The tax legislation allows 529 college savings plan assets to be used for education expenses for grades K–12 as well as college and post graduate study. It will also temporarily increase the contribution limits to ABLE accounts under certain circumstances.

Less flexible rules for home sales

Homeowners have benefited from rules that shelter capital gains on a primary residence. A married couple filing jointly could realize up to $500,000 in capital gains per home without taxation, if they had lived in the home for 2 of the previous 5 years. The new legislation will limit usage of this tax benefit to 1 home every 5 years, and require that it be a primary residence for 5 of the previous 8 years.

The bottom line

There are a few things you may want to consider in light of the new legislation, and may want to consult with a tax professional about, so you can be prepared.

  • Investment sales: Review your tax filing from the prior years and estimate to what extent your tax situation this year may be similar or different, and what the proposed tax changes may mean for you. If your marginal tax rate looks poised to fall, or you itemize now but won't under the higher standard deduction, you may wish to consider making future years' charitable gifts now, or other deductible expenses, and paying medical bills this year to make sure those deductions qualify for 2017 tax rules. This decision is complex, however, so consult a tax expert.
  • Estate tax: Even in the absence of tax reform, it makes sense to periodically review your estate plan. If the estate tax limit changes are relevant to your plan, it may make even more sense to revisit your strategy. You may want to meet with your estate planning attorney.
  • Small-business income: If you own a small business, you will want to reconsider how you structure your income and the form of your enterprise. Depending on the size and particulars of your business, you may want to consider the benefits of incorporation or the creation of multiple small pass-through organizations. Consult with an expert in small-business taxation.
  • Timing corporate expenses: With new rules in place temporarily for expensing capital equipment purchases, business owners may want to review their capital expenditure plans.
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