Every taxpayer with an investment portfolio of any size definitely needs to be concerned about the Alternative Minimum Tax. Certain types of investments, and the income earned on those investments, are likely to trigger the AMT. Most investors also have expenses associated with managing these portfolios, and certain of these expenses also can have an AMT impact.
It should be noted that only investments outside of qualified retirement plans – e.g., those investments not in a 401(k), an IRA or an employer’s retirement plan – are affected by the AMT, so it is these investments that are the focus of this article.
Municipal bonds, in particular Private Activity Bonds
Interest earned on municipal bonds is exempt from the Regular Tax. For the Alternative Minimum Tax, however, certain municipal bonds – those labeled “private activity bonds”- are subject to tax. These types of bonds are used to support “private activities,” an example of which would be a local government’s development of an industrial park as an inducement for companies to locate in the area.
The concern to the investor is the negative impact that being subject to the AMT has on the bond’s effective yield. For example, a municipal bond fund in today’s market may be yielding in excess of 4 percent, but if private activity bonds are a part of that fund’s portfolio, more than a quarter of the yield on this part can be lost due to the AMT. That 4 percent quickly drops to a net-after-tax 3 percent yield!
For an individual investing in a partnership, after the close of the year a tax form known as a “K-1” will be received. Because the partnership is a pass-through entity for tax purposes, this form tells each partner what income or losses to report on his or her individual tax return.
On the Form K-1 there also is a box labeled “Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT) Items.” If the partnership itself has any AMT items, they pass through and are reported by the individual partners just as the income or losses are. It is fairly common for investment partnerships to have activities that generate AMT items, so investors should consider inquiring about this when initially evaluating the investment. Here again, the anticipated yield can be reduced significantly if the AMT has to be paid.
Long-term capital gains are a bit of a sleeper issue with regard to the Alternative Minimum Tax. Although officially they are taxed at the same tax rate for purposes of the AMT as they are for the Regular Tax (currently 15 percent), and they are not a specifically-identified AMT item, nonetheless they can have a significant impact on an individual’s Alternative Minimum Tax. The reason for this is the fact that, as taxable income increases, the AMT exemption amount is gradually phased out. Since capital gains are included in taxable income, that 15 percent Regular Tax rate easily creeps closer to a 20 percent rate when figuring the AMT. This is especially important for those folks already in the phaseout income range ($150,000 to $440,000 for marrieds filing jointly; varies by filing status).
Investment interest expense
If money is borrowed for the purpose of making investments, in general the interest paid on the debt is computed the same for the Alternative Minimum Tax as it is for the Regular Tax. There are two exceptions, however. One is if home equity indebtedness is used to acquire investment property. This type of interest is first disallowed for the AMT because it is not considered “qualified residence interest,” but when used for investing it generally is considered an allowable deduction for the AMT. The other exception is for interest on debt the proceeds of which were used to acquire private activity bonds. Because this interest is disallowed for purposes of the Regular Tax under the rules that disallow interest if loan proceeds are used to acquire municipal bonds, the interest expense related to the private activity bonds is an allowable deductible for the AMT.
Investment interest income
Investment interest expense is an allowable deduction, but only to the extent the taxpayer has investment interest income. For purposes of the AMT, investment income is computed somewhat differently than it is for the Regular Tax. For example, if an individual has private activity bond interest, this is included in AMT investment income because it is taxable for the AMT. Another example applies to taxpayers who have rental properties, where the Regular Tax-AMT differences in computing depreciation will result in a difference in investment income, thus affecting the amount of investment interest expense that may be deducted.
Other investment expenses
Investment-related expenses such as fees paid to an investment advisor, trust fees, safe-deposit box fees, etc. and any other expenses incurred in deriving income may be deducted for the Regular Tax, subject to certain limitations that apply. The AMT allows no deduction for these expenses, however, so this item may factor into an individual’s Alternative Minimum Tax computation.
Taxpayers with an investment portfolio easily can find themselves caught in a number of traps set by the Alternative Minimum Tax. But as the individual has total control over the investments made, these traps generally can be avoided with a little advance planning. For investors currently stuck in the AMT, a review of the items triggering this tax will allow the individual to consider rearranging the portfolio to lessen this AMT impact. The thing always to keep in mind is the simple fact that it is only the after tax yield that ends up in the individual investor’s bank account!