Recently, Congress passed and the president signed into law yet another new set of tax laws. This one, named the Working Families Tax Relief Act of 2004, has an estimated price tag of $146 billion, so it is far from being revenue neutral. And, since this is an election year, there was very little discussion of offsetting the large price tag with spending cuts.
The new law doesn't really introduce any new earth-shattering law. Instead it extends the expiration of many individual and business provisions that were set to expire in the very near future. Discussed below are the provisions that will likely have an impact on most taxpayers.
Child Tax Credit: The maximum child tax credit was scheduled to drop to $700 in 2005 (down from $1,000 in 2004) and then eventually increase back up to $1,000 by 2010. The new law retains the maximum $1,000 credit for 2005 to 2009. What this means to you: If you have qualifying children, you'll be able to claim the maximum credit of $1,000 per qualifying child through 2009.
10% Tax Rate Bracket: The taxable income for this relatively new bracket was also scheduled to drop in 2005. The new law resets the size of the 10% bracket to 2005-2010 at the 2003 level ($7,000 for single folks, $10,000 for heads of households, and $14,000 for joint returns) with annual indexing (i.e., inflation increases) from 2003. Therefore, for 2005, the top end of the 10% bracket is expected to be $7,300 for singles, $10,450 for heads of households, and $14,600 for joint returns. What this means to you: All taxpayers will benefit from the expansion of the lower bracket rates, thereby reducing your overall taxes.
Educator Expenses: An adjustment to income of up to $250 for classroom expenses of certain educators was scheduled to expire at the end of 2003. The new law extends this break until the end of 2005. What this means to you: If you're a qualified educator, you'll again be able to claim this deduction for 2004 and 2005.
Marriage Penalty Relief: Congress is attempting to close the gap between single filers and married filers with respect to tax rates and standard deductions. That gap was scheduled to widen again under the provisions of the old tax laws. The new law addresses the issue of single vs. married standard deductions and tax rates and provides additional relief through 2008 for the standard deduction and through 2007 for tax rates. What this means to you: If you're a married person filing a joint return, your tax liability will more closely resemble the tax liability of two single people with similar income.
Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT) Exemption: The new law retains the higher AMT exemption limits for all taxpayers through 2005. What this means to you: If you're subject to the AMT, this section of the law will allow for a smaller AMT tax "hit." And if you're on the edge of the AMT, the higher exemptions may allow you to dodge this tax for another year.
Definition of a Child: As odd as it seems, different provisions of the tax code (such as the dependency exemption, the child tax credit, the earned income credit, and others) had different rules for the definition of a child. That being the case, you could have a "child" for the earned income credit but not have a "child" for the dependent care credit. The new law, effective in 2005, now provides for a uniform definition of a qualifying child. What this means to you: It will no longer be required to "test" your child (in order to determine whether you have a qualifying child) for each and every deduction or credit allowed for children. Under the new law, if the child qualifies for one provision, he or she will qualify for all.
Non-Refundable Personal Credits: The new law extends, through 2005, the provisions that non-refundable personal credits will apply to both the regular tax and the AMT tax. For this purpose, non-refundable personal credits include the dependent care credit, the elderly credit, the adoption credit, the child tax credit, the home mortgage interest credit, the HOPE Scholarship and Lifetime Learning credits, the savers credit, and the D.C. first-time homebuyer credit. What this means to you: If you're available to claim any of these credits, you'll not have to worry that the AMT will kick in and increase your AMT taxes simply because these credits have been claimed for regular tax purposes.
There are many other provisions in the new tax law that are targeted to specific taxpayers and situations (such as the excise tax on distilled spirits to Puerto Rico and the Indian Employment Tax Credit), so you might want to check out the provisions of the act to ensure that you're not missing anything important relative to you or your business. But for most of us, the above provisions are the meat of the new tax law.
Roy Lewis lives in a trailer down by the river and is a motivational speaker when not dealing with tax issues, and he understands that The Motley Fool is all about investors writing for investors. You can take a look at the stocks he owns as long as you promise not to ask him which stock to buy. He'll be glad to help you compute your gain or loss when you finally sell a stock, though.