UNDERSTANDING THE LANGUAGE OF TAXES

Part of our increasingly complicated Federal income tax structure is a myriad of acronyms and abbreviations. Understanding the meaning of the more frequently encountered terminology can lead to a better comprehension of the complex tax situations that a taxpayer might encounter.

This section explains some common terminology and provides an overview of their application.

Above-the-Line Deduction

The “line” in this term refers to the line drawn when totaling the items that make up the taxpayer's adjusted gross income (AGI). The term “deduction” is usually associated with itemized deductions, but an above-the-line deduction is one that can be taken in addition to the standard deduction or itemized deductions, whichever is used. This type of deduction is taken before determining the taxpayer's AGI; hence, the term “above-the-line.”

Acquisition Indebtedness

This is the debt used to acquire, build, or substantially improve a taxpayer's principal residence or a second home, and it is debt that is secured by the principal residence or second home. The interest on up to $1 million of acquisition indebtedness is deductible as an itemized deduction.

Adjusted Gross Income (AGI)

This may be the most important tax term since the tax code uses the AGI to limit a vast number of tax benefits. AGI is basically a taxpayer's gross taxable income from all sources (gross income) reduced by certain allowable adjustments, sometimes referred to as above-the-line deductions, which are deductible whether or not the taxpayer itemizes their deductions. The more frequently encountered adjustments include deductions for deductible IRA contributions, moving, alimony payments, higher education interest, forfeited interest and deductions for health insurance premiums, pension plan contributions and 50% of SE tax for self-employed individuals.

Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT)

A different way of computing one’s tax liability; it MUST be used if the resulting tax is higher than the tax computed by the regular method. This alternate way of computing the tax was introduced over three decades ago to prevent higher income taxpayers from reducing or escaping income tax. The AMT is structured to ignore the use of certain tax breaks and deductions and to apply special rates - 26% and 28%. Inflation over the years has slowly increased the number of taxpayers who are subject to the AMT. Although the factors affecting the AMT are too numerous to delineate here, the ones most frequently encountered by the average taxpayer include:
  • Taxes, including property taxes and state income tax, are not allowed as an AMT itemized deduction. 
  • Miscellaneous itemized deductions, including job-related and investment expenses, are not deductible for AMT purposes. 
  • The difference between the current market value and the exercise price of stock acquired through an Incentive Stock Option (ISOs) is added to income even though the stock has not been sold. 
  • Interest on home equity debt is not allowed as an AMT itemized deduction.

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