Who has to pay the alternative minimum tax (AMT)?

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The alternative minimum tax, or AMT, is a different, yet parallel, method to calculate a taxpayer’s bill. It applies to people whose income exceeds a certain level and is intended to close the loopholes that allow them to reduce or eliminate their tax payments. It’s adjusted each year for inflation.

How the AMT works

The AMT has its own set of rates (26 percent and 28 percent) and requires a separate calculation. Basically, it’s the difference between your regular tax bill, based on ordinary income tax rates, and your AMT bill, determined by completing IRS Form 6251: Alternative Minimum Tax — Individuals. When there’s a difference, you may have to pay the AMT amount in addition to your regular tax.

The AMT increases the amount of income that is taxed. It adds items that are not taxed on the standard tax rates and rejects or reduces many common tax breaks used every year by individual taxpayers to lower their IRS bills.

AMT exemption amounts for 2020

To be required to pay the AMT, you must have earned more than the minimum level in the chart below.

Filing status 2o20 AMT tax income minimum 2o19 AMT tax income minimum
Single or head of household $72,900 $71,700
Married, filing separately $56,700 $55,850
Married, filing jointly $113,400 $111,700

Who has to pay the AMT?

Anyone who meets the minimum income levels in the above chart may be subject to the AMT. However, reaching those levels does not automatically trigger the AMT. You can complete IRS Form 6251 by hand, use tax software programs or hire a professional tax preparer to determine if you owe the AMT and, if so, the amount you owe.

The IRS has set income levels to determine which rate you’re charged for your AMT. If your income is below the stated level, you’re taxed at the 26 percent rate. If your income is over the stated level, you’re taxed at a rate of 28 percent.

Filing status 2020 AMT tax rate income level 2019 AMT tax rate income level
Single or head of household $197,900 $194,800
Married, filing separately $98,950 $97,400
Married, filing jointly $197,900 $194,800

This means that for a single person who earned more than $72,900 in 2020, but less than $197,900, the AMT rate is 26 percent. If that person earned more than $197,900, the AMT tax rate goes up to 28 percent.

Even for high earners, the AMT phases out to 25 cents per dollar earned once income has reached a threshold. See the chart below for this year’s threshold.

Filing status 2020 AMT phaseout threshold 2019 AMT phaseout threshold
Single or head of household $518,400 $510,300
Married, filing separately $518,400 $510,300
Married, filing jointly $1,036,800 $1,020,600

How the AMT can impact your eligibility for tax breaks

With the AMT, many of the items you could deduct for your standard taxes no longer apply. Under the AMT:

  • You do not receive the standard deduction or personal exemptions.
  • You cannot deduct state and local taxes.
  • Medical expenses must exceed 10 percent of your gross income to be deducted.
  • Miscellaneous itemized deductions, which must exceed 2 percent of your adjusted gross income under the regular tax system, are disallowed for the AMT.
  • While mortgage interest on your main and second home is still AMT-deductible, home equity loan interest is restricted. It can only be deducted if the money is used solely to pay for home improvements.
  • Real estate property taxes also are disallowed as deductions under the AMT.
  • Some tax credits that reduce your regular tax liability do not reduce what you owe under the AMT. Once you add back these disallowed credits and run the numbers, you might be subject to a bigger IRS bill if your taxable income exceeds the annual AMT exemption amount for your filing status.

Additional tax breaks not allowed under the AMT that affect predominantly high-income people are:

  • Incentive stock options.
  • Intangible drilling costs.
  • Tax-exempt interest from certain private activity bonds.
  • Depletion and accelerated depreciation on certain leased personal or real property.

Determining your financial liability as a result of the AMT can be complicated. Tax software programs or a tax professional may be the best way to determine your status. Once you complete this year’s tax return, seek the guidance of an accountant or tax professional to find ways to potentially reduce your tax liability going forward.