The AMT: Is it Necessary?

The IRS is reminding taxpayers and Congress alike that if the annual “AMT patch” isn’t renewed before the end of the year, millions of taxpayers (28 million) would be on the hook for thousands more per person in tax payments.

But we need more than just a “patch”. We should strive to eliminate the AMT from the tax code. Here’s why:

The Alternative Minimum Tax (“AMT”) presents hardships to the practitioner as well as the taxpayer who prepares his own return by, as its name implies, imposing a second tax calculation mechanism on taxpayers. It serves virtually no useful purpose, other than the raising of an ever-increasing amount of tax revenue. But it has become very clear in recent years that this AMT tax revenue is not coming from just the taxpayers who were the intended targets of this tax.

The AMT was instituted in its present form when the prior “add on” Minimum Tax was transformed into the AMT in the early 1980’s. Its  stated purpose was to require that all taxpayers paid at least a fair share of tax. It was to do this by identifying “loophole” type deductions, also known as “preferences”. There would then be an alternative calculation using lower tax rates applied against this taxable income as increased by the preferences. Whichever of the taxes is higher is the one the taxpayer must pay.

However the AMT was seriously flawed from the outset. Instead of focusing on these loophole type preferences (which would have limited the tax to a very small number of tax law “abusers”), the law that was passed included items that were not loopholes at all. A convoluted formula compares the differences between income and deductions to determine who falls under the guidelines.

A very substantial majority of all AMT paid by taxpayers results from the following four factors:
  1. Treating state and local taxes as a preference
  2. Treating miscellaneous deductions as a preference
  3. Allowing lower exemptions than the regular tax.

Each of these, however, can be quickly shown as inappropriate factors with which to base a tax system intended to just make sure everyone pays a “fair share” of tax.

  1. State and local taxes are hardly a loophole. The taxes exacted by state and local governments are hardly “voluntarily” paid by taxpayers in an attempt to avoid paying federal taxes.
  2. Miscellaneous deductions is the category of deductions that consists primarily of expenses incurred to earn income that is subject to tax. It includes unreimbursed employee expenses, investment expenses, etc. This is the most basic and important deduction needed to have a truly fair income tax system. For example, if an individual pays a lawyer a fee for collecting back wages, the legal fee is a miscellaneous deduction. If an individual pays the lawyer $300 for collecting $1000 of back pay, netting $700, the AMT would tax the individual on the full $1000.
  3. The exemption available under the AMT tax system is a fixed dollar amount which, unlike exemptions and standard deductions under the regular tax system, is not indexed for inflation. Furthermore, it is phased out entirely over certain income levels.  And each year Congress has to approve an annual “patch”, which raises the threshold for inflation, in order to raise the exemption limits of the tax so that less wealthy taxpayers won’t be subject to the AMT.

It must be noted that the annual AMT patch is not a tax cut at all, but merely the avoidance of a massive tax increase on millions of middle-income taxpayers’ families. Congress likes to point to the patch as some major revenue loss, had the AMT been applied to those families, as an excuse to raise to raise taxes in order to offset this “potential missing tax revenue”.

The AMT in its present form has no place in tax law.  The AMT does not serve the purpose for which it was intended and functions in a most inequitable manner while adding enormous compliance burdens. It should therefore be drastically changed to eliminate the adjustments for state and local taxes and miscellaneous deductions, update its rates, and modify its exemption — or else the AMT needs to be eliminated completely.

crossposted at alanjoelny.com