Maximizing Employee Tax Deductions with Alternative Minimum Tax 2023‍

Casey Fenton

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January 26, 2024

Suppose you’re diligently planning your finances, taking advantage of every deduction and exemption available to you. By year-end, you estimate a modest tax bill only to find a surprise letter stating you owe significantly more due to something called the Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT). Such surprises have been a reality for many high-earning taxpayers, turning their well-planned tax strategy upside down. 

The objective of this guide? To ensure that you are not caught off-guard by AMT and can maximize your deductions during the fiscal year.

What is the Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT)?

The Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT) is a tax system separate from the standard tax system most people are familiar with. Originally designed to target a small group of high-income taxpayers who could use special tax benefits to pay little or no tax, the AMT has, over time, come to impact a broader segment of taxpayers. The essential function of AMT is to recalculate income tax after adding certain tax preference items back into adjusted gross income.

Historical Context: Why Was AMT Introduced?

In the late 1960s, Congress initiated an investigation into the tax liability of 155 high-income households. It was discovered that, despite having significant incomes, these households were using loopholes and deductions to avoid paying any federal income tax. This revelation shocked the public and policymakers alike, leading to the introduction of the AMT with the Tax Reform Act of 1969. The idea was straightforward: ensure that everyone pays at least a minimal amount of tax, regardless of deductions and credits.

Which Tax Code It Appears In

The AMT was formalized under the Tax Reform Act of 1969 and is now found under Sections 55-59 of the Internal Revenue Code. These sections offer comprehensive guidance on the calculation, exemptions, and phase-outs related to the AMT.

How AMT Fits into the Broader Tax Landscape

While many taxpayers continue to pay income tax calculated under the regular tax system, others—due to their deductions and tax situations—might find themselves paying the AMT. This is because certain deductions permitted under the regular tax code get added back for AMT purposes.

When preparing your tax returns, you essentially have to navigate two parallel tax systems: the regular income tax and the AMT. You'll determine your tax liability for both and then pay whichever amount is higher. This dual calculation ensures that high-earning taxpayers with significant deductions still contribute a minimum amount of tax.

How Does the Alternative Minimum Tax Work?

The first thing to grasp about the AMT is that it operates alongside the regular tax system, not within it. Think of it as a parallel universe in taxation. Every year, when you file your taxes, you're essentially running two separate computations: one under the regular tax rules and another under AMT rules.

Calculation Process

  1. Determine Adjusted Gross Income (AGI): Start by determining your AGI just as you would for your regular tax. This includes all your sources of income minus specific deductions.

  1. Add Back AMT Preference Items: Here's where the AMT starts to diverge. You'll add back certain "preference items"—deductions and exemptions allowed under the regular tax system but disallowed for AMT. Examples include state and local tax deductions and certain mortgage interest. This adjusted amount is called the "Alternative Minimum Taxable Income" (AMTI).

Once you have your AMTI, you apply the AMT exemption (which varies based on filing status) and then the AMT rates. The resulting figure is your potential AMT liability.

Basic Exemptions: Not Everyone Pays AMT

The AMT doesn't apply universally. There are exemptions based on your filing status, which means below a certain income level, you won't owe any AMT. For instance, as of the last update, single filers and married couples filing jointly have different exemption amounts.

Phase-Out Thresholds

The idea behind the AMT is to ensure wealthier taxpayers pay their fair share. Therefore, as your income rises, your AMT exemption decreases. These phase-out thresholds mean that once your income surpasses a certain point, you'll gradually lose the benefit of the AMT exemption, leading to a higher effective AMT rate.

How Often Will You Pay AMT?

While the AMT might seem daunting, not everyone will face it every year. Your AMT liability can vary year-to-year based on factors like changes in income, the deductions you claim, and adjustments to AMT rules.

Changes in Alternative Minimum Tax for 2023 Onwards

Tax laws and provisions, including the AMT, often undergo changes based on economic conditions, inflation adjustments, and legislative decisions. The year 2023 is no exception, with several key modifications to the AMT that could impact your tax liability.

1. New Exemption Amounts: Adjustments for Inflation

To ensure that the AMT doesn't unduly affect taxpayers due to inflation, exemption amounts are periodically adjusted. For 2023, the AMT exemption amounts have been tweaked to account for inflation. This means that the income threshold at which you start owing AMT might be slightly higher than in previous years. It's best to consult the latest IRS guidelines or your tax advisor to know the precise figures.

2. Adjustment in Phase-Out Thresholds

Similar to the exemption amounts, the phase-out thresholds—which determine when the AMT exemptions start to decrease—have also seen an adjustment in 2023. These thresholds dictate the income levels beyond which you begin to lose your AMT exemption, effectively increasing your AMT liability. By adjusting these thresholds, the IRS aims to ensure fairness and that the originally intended high-income earners are the ones primarily affected.

3. Potential Changes in Deductions and Preference Items

Each year may bring modifications to what constitutes a preference item or what deductions might be added back for AMT purposes. For instance, legislative changes might alter the treatment of certain deductions under the AMT, either expanding or narrowing the list of add-backs.

4. Broader Tax Reforms

It's essential to be aware that changes in the AMT don't occur in isolation. Broader tax reforms, adjustments to standard deductions, or changes in itemized deductions can indirectly influence the number of taxpayers subject to the AMT.

Factors that Might Trigger AMT

When you prepare your taxes, you strategically use deductions and exemptions to reduce your taxable income. However, what might save you money under the regular tax system could, surprisingly, push you into AMT territory. Understanding these triggers is important for effective tax planning.

1. Large Number of Personal Exemptions: Quantity Matters

It's a common practice to claim personal exemptions for yourself, your spouse, and your dependents. While these reduce your regular taxable income, over-reliance can be a double-edged sword. For AMT calculations, these exemptions are added back, increasing your Alternative Minimum Taxable Income (AMTI) and potentially your AMT liability.

2. State and Local Tax Deductions

Deducting state and local taxes (often called "SALT" deductions) can substantially lower your regular tax bill. However, in the realm of AMT, these deductions are disallowed. This means that if you live in a high-tax state and claim significant SALT deductions, you might inadvertently make yourself a prime candidate for the AMT.

3. Exercise of Incentive Stock Options (ISOs)

For many employees, especially in the tech sector, Incentive Stock Options are a lucrative part of compensation packages. But there's a hidden tax wrinkle: when you exercise these options, the spread—the difference between the exercise price and the fair market value—becomes a preference item for AMT. This can inflate your AMTI, potentially leading to a significant AMT bill.

4. Miscellaneous Factors

Meanwhile, several other elements might push you toward the AMT:

If you earn interest from certain private-activity bonds, that interest is tax-free under the regular tax system. However, for AMT purposes, it's added back to your income.

Similarly, differences in how depreciation is calculated under regular tax rules and AMT rules can affect your AMTI.

Interestingly, if you claim the standard deduction instead of itemizing, you might also increase your chances of facing the AMT since the standard deduction isn't allowed for AMT purposes.

Potential Tax Strategies to Minimize AMT Impact

Navigating the intricate web of the Alternative Minimum Tax can seem overwhelming. But with a clear strategy and some foresight, it's possible to mitigate its effects. Here are some potential strategies for employees looking to minimize their AMT exposure:

1. Time Your Deductions

Under the standard tax system, it's common practice to accelerate deductions and defer income. This means trying to take as many deductions as possible in the current tax year while pushing off income to future years.

However, because some standard deductions aren't allowed under AMT, accelerating these deductions could potentially increase your AMT liability.

If you suspect you'll be subject to AMT in a particular year, consider delaying certain deductions until a year when you're not. For instance, if you typically make charitable donations in December, you might delay until January of the following year.

2. Plan Your Stock Options Exercise

Exercising stock options, like Incentive Stock Options (ISOs), in a strategic manner can optimize your regular tax liability.

However, as discussed, the "spread" on ISOs is a preferred item for AMT. Exercising a large number of ISOs in a single year can significantly raise your AMT.

Consider a staggered approach. Instead of exercising all available ISOs in one year, spread them out over multiple years to manage the AMT impact.

4. Reevaluate State and Local Tax Payments

Paying state and local taxes before year-end can be a valuable deduction under the regular tax system. However, these deductions are disallowed under AMT.

If you're likely to be hit by the AMT, you might delay those tax payments until January, especially if you believe you won't be subject to AMT the following year.

5. Engage in Year-End Tax Planning

Given the complexity of AMT, year-end tax planning becomes necessary. Before year-end, project your potential tax for the year considering both regular tax and AMT rules. This will give you time to adjust your strategies accordingly.

6. Collaborate with Professionals

Considering the complexity of the AMT, working with a tax professional can offer a customized strategy tailored to your financial situation. They can provide insights and advice to optimize your position concerning both regular tax and AMT.

How AMT Applies to Equity Compensation such as ISOs and RSUs

Employee compensation has evolved significantly over the years. Today, equity compensation—awarding shares or options to purchase shares—is a common component of many compensation packages, especially in sectors like technology and startups. While these equity instruments provide valuable benefits, they come with unique tax implications, particularly under the Alternative Minimum Tax. Here's a deep dive into how AMT treats two popular forms of equity compensation: Incentive Stock Options (ISOs) and Restricted Stock Units (RSUs).

Incentive Stock Options (ISOs) and AMT

ISOs grant employees the right to purchase company stock in the future at a predetermined price, known as the exercise or strike price. They become particularly valuable if the company's stock price rises above this strike price.

Generally, with ISOs, you don't incur any regular tax when the option is granted or even when it's exercised. You only face the regular tax when you sell the stock, and then it's typically taxed at favorable long-term capital gains rates, provided certain holding period requirements are met.

Now here's where it gets tricky. When you exercise an ISO, the difference between the stock's fair market value (FMV) at the time of exercise and the strike price (often referred to as the "spread") is considered a preference item for AMT purposes. This means, even if you haven't sold the stock and realized any actual profit, you might still have a significant AMT liability.

If you're considering exercising ISOs, it's essential to calculate potential AMT implications. Sometimes, it might be more tax-efficient to exercise ISOs gradually over several years, spreading out the AMT impact.

Restricted Stock Units (RSUs) 

Unlike ISOs, RSUs represent a promise from the employer to grant stock or cash equivalent to the stock's value at a future vesting date.

When RSUs vest, they're treated as income. The amount of income is based on the FMV of the stock on the vesting date. This amount is subject to regular income taxes, and your employer typically withholds taxes at this point.

The good news is that RSUs are more straightforward concerning AMT. Since the income from vested RSUs is already included in your regular taxable income, there aren't additional AMT adjustments as there are with ISOs. However, the income from RSUs can raise your overall income level, potentially pushing you closer to AMT thresholds.

If you're receiving a large RSU grant that vests in a particular year, consider other deductions or tax moves to offset the added income. While RSUs are generally taxed as ordinary income upon vesting, there are still strategies to mitigate the tax burden. One common approach is the 83(b) election. By making this election within 30 days of receiving a grant (even before it vests), you opt to be taxed on the grant's value immediately rather than waiting for the vesting period. This strategy can be beneficial if you expect the stock's value to rise significantly before vesting, as you'll pay tax on the lower initial value. 

However, you should note that this comes with risks—if the stock value decreases, or if you leave the company before the RSUs vest, you won't recoup the taxes paid. Always consult with a tax advisor before making this election to ensure it aligns with your specific financial situation.

Tax Deduction Strategies Don’t Have to be Hard

Navigating the complexities of the Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT) requires vigilance, understanding, and strategic planning, especially in the context of evolving compensation structures like equity in the form of ISOs. Whether you're assessing the changes in AMT for the upcoming tax year, understanding factors that might trigger AMT, or exploring strategies to minimize its impact, being proactive and informed can lead to significant financial benefits. Engaging with a tax professional to personalize these insights to your specific situation might be the investment that yields the best returns, ensuring that your hard-earned money is protected from unnecessary taxation.

Want to know more about RSUs and how they compare to ISOs, tax-wise? Send a message to Upstock today!

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Casey Fenton

Founder, Upstock & Couchsurfing, AI and Equity Innovator

Casey Fenton, the founder of Upstock & Couchsurfing and an AI and equity innovator, has revolutionized how we perceive and implement equity in the workplace. His foresight in creating platforms that not only connect people but also align their interests towards communal and corporate prosperity has established him as a pivotal figure in technology and community building. Casey speaks worldwide on topics including ownership mindset, worker equity, With Upstock and Couchsurfing, he has demonstrated an unparalleled expertise in harnessing technology for the betterment of community interaction and organizational benefits.

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